Global warming will not only result in rising ocean levels, strange weather patterns and droughts. It could also expose us to dangerous prehistoric viral pathogens.
According to Phys.Org, rising temperatures enabled French researchers to recently unearth a 30,000-year-old virus in Siberia. The virus, with the ominous name of Mollivirus sibericum, is considered a “giant” among viruses. It measures more than 500 nanometers, which is roughly 0.0002 of an inch. Most viruses vary in size from 20 to 300 nanometers.
Some scientists believe that these giant viruses may have provided the raw material for cellular life. Unlike smaller viruses, the giant viruses have a genetic complexity that is similar to that of single-celled organisms. This suggests that giant viruses may have been more complex organisms that eventually reduced genomes and adapted to become viral parasites.
Model of a Virus via Flickr user Tom Thai
French researchers plan to revive the newly discovered M. sibericum virus in a single-cell amoeba, which is a typical target host for this type of virus, once they determine that the virus cannot cause disease in animals or humans. This isn’t the first time scientists have
uncovered a new virus as a result of global climate change. In 2013, a group of researchers discovered another giant virus, named Pithovirus sibericum, in the same area. They used a similar procedure of reviving the ancient virus by using amoeba as virus bait. Once the amoeba started dying, scientist were able to extract and identify the virus.
While these giant viruses generally only target amoeba, Nature magazine reported that another giant virus, Marseillevirus, was found in an infected 11-year-old boy. He had been hospitalized for inflamed lymph nodes and researchers discovered the giant virus in his node. This suggests that other, yet undiscovered giant viruses could pose a risk to human health.
To make things worse, the areas where many of the new viruses have been found are in mineral rich areas. Extracting minerals and other natural resources from previously icy territories increase the likelihood that new pathogens find their way to human or animal hosts. If these viruses cause diseases unseen on earth since prehistoric times, it could lead to a worldwide medical disaster. Think Encino Man meets Outbreak.
via Flickr user Douglas Scortegagna
“It’s not that the permafrost itself is melting, but global warming is opening up [previously frozen] sea routes to sought-after sites that contain gas, gold, and minerals,” Jean-Michel Claverie, one of the researchers, told Vice News. “In the event of mining operations, millions of tons of these layers will be dug up and exposed to the air. All the conditions will be in place for the reactivation of these viruses, some of which could be pathogens.”
Without proper safeguards, the next human plague may not come from an exotic animal in a remote African jungle. It might come from the melting Siberian tundra.
Featured image via Yuri Samoilov