Should You Be Worried About These New Zombie Viruses?

Permafrost is a layer of soil or rock that remains permanently frozen throughout the year, with some areas remaining in this state for thousands and thousands of years. It occupies nearly one-quarter of the Northern Hemisphere and plays a significant role in shaping the Earth’s climate, ecosystems, and geological processes.

However, as global temperatures continue to rise, the once-stable permafrost is beginning to thaw, releasing ancient organic matter that has been frozen for millennia. This includes not only gasses like carbon dioxide and methane, which contribute to the greenhouse effect, but also a host of microbes and viruses that have lain dormant since prehistoric times. 

As researchers dig deeper into these rapidly changing landscapes, they are uncovering a fascinating and somewhat alarming world of “zombie viruses.”

The Discovery of Ancient Viruses in Permafrost

In a recent study published in the journal Viruses, researchers reported the preliminary characterizations of 13 new viruses isolated from ancient Siberian permafrost samples.

The viruses discovered belong to five different clades (groups of related organisms) infecting Acanthamoeba spp., a type of amoeba found in soil and water.

These findings follow previous discoveries of 2 other viruses (pithovirus and mollivirus in 2014 and 2015), which were the first “live” viruses identified in permafrost. 

These recent discoveries challenge the misconception that such viruses are rare and that they do not pose a significant public health threat.

Understanding the Risks of Zombie Viruses

The term “zombie virus” can evoke images of apocalyptic scenarios where ancient pathogens wreak havoc on modern populations. However, it’s essential to understand the reality of the situation and the potential risks these viruses may pose.

The majority of the viruses discovered in permafrost are not known to infect humans or animals. Instead, they primarily infect single-celled organisms like amoebas. It is still uncertain how these viruses might behave if they were to come into contact with more complex life forms, such as humans or animals.

While the risk of these ancient viruses directly infecting humans appears to be low, there is potential for indirect impacts. For example, viruses can exchange genetic material with other microbes, potentially leading to the emergence of new pathogens with unknown consequences.

Research and Monitoring Efforts

Scientists are working tirelessly to better understand these newly discovered viruses and their potential impact on ecosystems and public health. They are also closely monitoring the effects of climate change on permafrost and the possible release of more ancient viruses and microbes.

By studying these organisms, researchers hope to gain valuable insights into their biology, evolution, and potential impacts on ecosystems. This knowledge can help inform public health strategies and contribute to our understanding of how viruses have evolved over time.

Should You Be Worried?

While the idea of ancient viruses reawakening from their frozen slumber can be unsettling, there is currently no reason to panic. 

These microbes are generally very sensitive to environmental conditions. When exposed to heat, UV light, and oxygen, they tend to decay quickly and lose their viability. As a result, the chances of these ancient viruses surviving long enough to infect humans or animals are relatively low.

Additionally, our modern immune systems have evolved significantly over the past 30,000 to 50,000 years (when these viruses were last active). The human body is equipped with a complex and sophisticated defense system designed to protect us from various pathogens, including viruses. While it’s difficult to predict exactly how our immune system would respond to these ancient viruses, it is likely that our modern defenses would provide some level of protection against them.

However, the discovery of these ancient viruses serves as a stark reminder of the profound and sometimes unexpected consequences of climate change. It highlights the importance of continued research, monitoring, and efforts to mitigate the impacts of global warming on ecosystems, public health, and the planet as a whole.