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HomeNewsThawing Permafrost Exposes Old Pathogens—and New Hosts

Thawing Permafrost Exposes Old Pathogens—and New Hosts



The Arctic—that remote, largely undisturbed, 5.5 million square miles of frozen terrain—is heating up fast. In fact, it’s warming nearly four times quicker than the rest of the world, with disastrous consequences for the region and its inhabitants. These impacts are well-documented in nature documentaries. Good news, however! Another reason to be concerned is the possibility of new pathogens being unleashed by the warming environment. 

Climate change will increase the risk of spreading infectious diseases. This is an under-appreciated side effect. Many species will be moving far from their usual habitats as the climate warms, and carrying various pathogens with them. This means that previously unacquainted viruses and hosts will meet for the first time, potentially leading to viral stabletover—where a virus jumps from one reservoir host to a new one, like our old friend SARS-CoV-2. 

This is possible in the Arctic, which has good chances of being realized. A new paper in the journal The Scientist has published. Proceedings of the Royal SocietyA group of University of Ottawa researchers attempted to determine the risk of stabletover in this region. To identify any virus presence, they went to Lake Hazen (a Canadian freshwater lake) and collected samples from soil and sediment. The genomes of possible hosts were also sequenced.

The researchers then attempted to determine how likely it was for a virus to jump into another species. They looked at both the genomes of each virus and their typical hosts to determine how likely they were. If a host and a virus show similar patterns in how they have evolved, it suggests that they’ve lived in tandem for a long time, and that the virus doesn’t tend to move into other species. Their patterns of evolution may be very different. It could indicate that the virus is experienced in living with other species, has leapt before and will do it again.

They used computer algorithms to calculate how climate change might affect the potential for viruses to spread species in this region. As a proxy for rising temperatures, they used melting glacier water as a measure of increasing temperature. The result was that there is a greater risk of the virus population jumping host to warmer temperatures. Why? As meltwater streams into the lake, it carries and deposits sediment, which unsettles the lake’s population and, by disturbing this environment, speeds up pathogens’ evolution against their hosts’ immune defenses. 

One important caveat is that it’s not possible to give a definite answer on what will actually happen. “We’re not able to say, ‘We are going to have serious pandemic issues in the High Arctic,’” says Stéphane Aris-Brosou, an author on the paper and associate professor of biology at the University of Ottawa. It is just trying to determine the exact nature of this work. Risk There is a possibility of stabletover. “It’s absolutely impossible to predict this kind of event.”

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