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Melting Ice Could Unleash Deadly Bacteria Lain Dormant for Millennia

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Staffan Widstrand

Deep in the soils of permafrost lurks unknown and archaic bacteria that could potentially spawn viruses and disease that the human race has never been exposed to, at least, not in the recent history of penicillin. But with climate change rapidly heating up the poles, the permafrost is melting away, and we may have to face whatever is beneath the ice.


There are few cases of deadly bacteria emerging from the ice, but in one case a 12-year-old boy from Yamal Peninsula in the Arctic Circle died from anthrax poisoning, which was believed to come from a thawed carcass of a reindeer that died 75 years ago after contracting anthrax. As ice melts, it enters bodies of water that are used for drinking water, which is why scientists are worried about unknown disease the ice may be harboring.

"Permafrost is a very good preserver of microbes and viruses, because it is cold, there is no oxygen, and it is dark," evolutionary biologist Jean-Michel Claverie told BBC. "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."

The biggest concern is that the hosts of disease like bubonic plague, Spanish flu and smallpox are buried very near the surface of the ice.

"As a consequence of permafrost melting, the vectors of deadly infections of the 18th and 19th Centuries may come back," Boris Revich and Marina Podolnaya wrote in a 2011 study, "especially near the cemeteries where the victims of these infections were buried."

One such burial site is in Siberia, where one town lost 40 percent of its population to smallpox. It's a haunting thought, but the ice is melting in the area where they were buried and it's not impossible that the disease lives beneath the ice.

Scientists have revived dormant bacteria from corpses that are thousands of years old. In 2005, NASA brought to life bacteria that were in a frozen Alaskan pond for 32,000 years. With just a little heat, the ice melted and the bacteria began floating around.

Melting ice isn't the only threat to bringing these microbes back to life. Shipping and offshore drilling could also disrupt these frozen environments.

"At the moment, these regions are deserted and the deep permafrost layers are left alone," Claverie said. "However, these ancient layers could be exposed by the digging involved in mining and drilling operations. If viable virions are still there, this could spell disaster."

The biggest fear is that these bacteria won't be affected by modern-day antibiotics because the medicines weren't designed to tackle that type of bacteria. Essentially, it's possible that we wouldn't be able to keep up with the influx of an emerging bacteria without proper treatments put into place. It would be like starting from scratch.

The risk for such a epidemic is unknown, but it could be anywhere from scarlet fever to your regular seasonal flu. But, there is enough evidence to show that scientists should be giving extra attention to the area of study and putting safeguards in place in the off chance that our next glass of water contains a deadly pathogen.

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