Arctic researchers set the internet buzzing this week, announcing they’d discovered a new “giant” virus in Arctic permafrost. Thawed in their lab, it quickly infected and killed host bacteria, confirming that 30,000 years of freezing had left the virus viable. While researchers confirmed that the newly named Pithovirus sibericum represented no threat to humans, they warn that accelerated thawing of the Arctic, along with new plans to drill and mine there, could unearth other pathogens that are not so benign.
Cryogenically preserved pathogens coming back to life and threatening mankind sounds like the stuff of science fiction movies. The scariest part, of course, is that it’s real. Infectious disease, it’s been argued, is the greatest agent of natural selection, and the primary shaper of man’s evolution. Historians note three eras of contagion coincident with: (i)the development of agriculture and start of human settlement; (ii) the domestication of animals, and (iii) the discovery of the New World. Public health specialists have been warning that the explosion of global commerce and warming of the planet are ushering in a fourth era.
The realization that previously unknown infectious organisms could emerge from a thawing to infect naive populations who are more inter-connected than at any time in human history is alarming. But it could also be a unifying issue for all sides on the contentious topic of climate change. Yale Project for Climate Change Communications Director Anthony Leiserowitz reports that “when people understand that climate change is about people and not just polar bears” the dynamic changes. New viruses emerging from the Arctic’s basement are an exciting development for microbiologists and a cautionary one for the rest of us.