Under normal conditions, anthrax is a rare disease – and almost unheard of in colder, northern climates. However, an unusual heat wave in Siberia’s Arctic Yamal Peninsula region last summer resulted in an outbreak that claimed the life of a 12-year-old boy and sent twenty more to the hospital for treatment. It was the first such outbreak in over 75 years – and scientists are gravely concerned that it is a harbinger of things to come.
Currently, temperatures in the Arctic are rising three times faster than the rest of the planet. This is not only threatening wildlife, it is also exposing ancient permafrost layers that have not seen the light of day in millions of years. Hiding in those layers may be microbes, bacteria, and viruses that have been locked away since the first hominids migrated out of Africa almost two million years ago.
This is the fear of French biologist Jean-Michel Claverie, who works at Aix-Marseille University. In a recent interview with the BBC, he said,
“Permafrost is a very good preserver of microbes and viruses, because it is cold, there is no oxygen, and it is dark. Pathogenic viruses that can infect humans or animals might be preserved in old permafrost layers, including some that have caused global epidemics in the past.”
Claverie’s concerns have been supported by a number of studies. In 2005, NASA scientists were able to revive bacteria retrieved from an Alaskan pond that had been frozen since the last Ice Age, which ended less than 12,000 years ago. In 2007, U.S. researchers successfully revived 8 million-year-old microbes found in Antarctica. More recently, Claverie and a team of biologists were able to revive a pair of viruses, known as pandoraviruses, that may actually represent a previously unknown form of life and had been trapped under Siberian permafrost since Neanderthals walked the earth.
The implications of these discoveries are grave. What is even more alarming is that many of these ancient microbes that have been discovered may already be resistant to modern-day antibiotics. For example, scientists studying a four million-year-old bacteria discovered in New Mexico’s Lechuguilla Cave found 18 different resistance mechanisms encoded in their DNA including three that had never been seen before. This particular bacterium, from a genus known as Paenibacillus (some of which can attack beneficial insects such as bees), is resistant to 70% of today’s antibiotics. It suggests that such resistance may have evolved naturally, possibly as a result of having to compete with other species of bacteria.
The big question is: as Exxon-Mobil and the Trump Administration continue to keep us hooked to fossil fuels and the planet keeps warming up as a result, could we be looking at mass pandemics caused by these ancient pathogens? Some say science should focus on the more immediate threat from known tropical diseases such as malaria and dengue fever that are migrating northward as global temperatures rise. However, the fact is that we know very little about these prehistoric viruses and bacteria that are being released from their ice prisons after eons.
Claverie believes there is a always a chance that such pathogens could return to infect the human population. He says,
“How likely that is is not known, but it’s a possibility. It could be bacteria that are curable with antibiotics, or resistant bacteria, or a virus. If the pathogen hasn’t been in contact with humans for a long time, then our immune system would not be prepared. So yes, that could be dangerous.”