Will melting permafrost release dangerous disease pathogens?

Scientists continue to argue about the causes of climate warming, which could be observed since the beginning of the twentieth century. A number of climatologists question the version that human economic activity is exclusively to blame for what is happening. Throughout its history, the Earth has been several times in a state of glaciation and warming to such indicators that significantly exceed modern ones.

Let’s leave the issues of the root cause of the process, as well as the search for a way to stabilize the situation for specialists, and talk about the likelihood of such a threat to humanity as the emergence of new infectious threats. It would be more correct to say, the return to life of old pathogenic microorganisms and viruses that existed before the ice age that could infect our species.

Infection and cold temperatures

Will melting permafrost release dangerous disease pathogens?
Photo: Depositphotos

The human body can undergo expansion:

  • Bacteria.
  • Viruses.
  • Parasitic fungi.

Only the first are capable of surviving a long freeze. Viruses are not a complete organism – they are DNA or RNA coated with protein or fat. They can live exclusively in a cell of the host’s body, continuously replicating.

Kingdom mushrooms has over 100,000 species. Each of them occupies its own specific niche in nature. Micromycetes, which are absolutely harmless to humans, flourish in the Arctic and Antarctic. Those that cause mycoses will not survive there.

Bacteria proved to be the most persistent. If the environmental conditions do not suit them, and the food has run out due to the death of their carrier, these invisible microorganisms simply slow down the metabolism. It has been proven that frost reduces their number, but does not completely destroy them. In the absence of favorable conditions for a long time, bacteria can build a specific protective membrane and turn into spores.

Cell structure of a typical gram-positive bacterium
Cell structure of a typical gram-positive bacterium

As soon as the environment becomes suitable for the vital activity of microorganisms, they will return to their normal vegetative state. There are cases when pathogenic bacteria revived after thousands of years of such sleep.

Glaciers with germs and viruses

There have been finds of living bacteria, whose age totaled several million years. So in 2009, researchers from Harvard University discovered those in Antarctica. True, they were extremophiles. Their life cycle and needs correspond to a habitat that is seriously different from that which the human body can provide.

Melting ice can kill these prehistoric babies, but this tragedy will not have a direct impact on human health. Of course, in the future, a global change in the microcosm of our planet may negatively affect species living far from the poles, but forecasts on this issue should be made in a separate article on ecology.

The vibrant colors of the Great Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park are the result of thermophiles (a species of extremophile)
The vibrant colors of the Great Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park are the result of thermophiles (a species of extremophile)

You can find information that viruses have been found in the ice of the Arctic and Antarctic. This statement does not refute the above, because these same viruses are found in the organisms of bacteria, algae and protozoa. Not a single case of transmission of infection from a microorganism to a person has been recorded.

  • The danger is the melting of permafrost on land, where the corpses of dead animals and people are stored in the frozen ground.

Dangerous bacteria from under the ice

Russian scientists from the Pacific Institute of Geography of the Far Eastern Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences are conducting research on the remains of prehistoric animals that can be found in the permafrost. They were able to identify a number of microorganisms that infect the fauna of the mammoth era, however, these pathogenic bacteria are very specific and strictly focused on the organisms of their victims. Considering that the Arctic never turned into a desert, it should be recognized that everything that ancient mammals could pass on to their relatives who have survived to this day, they passed on. Diseases that hit only mammoths will remain with them forever.

  • A serious threat to modern life on Earth is posed by dangerous infections stored by cattle burial grounds.
Caution, cattle burial!
Caution, cattle burial!

The last case of infection of animals and people from dead livestock in Russia was recorded in 2016 in the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Okrug. It was not possible to avoid human casualties then. The source of the anthrax, which claimed lives, was the thawed burial grounds of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Even more dangerous, according to scientists, are the burials of people who were killed in past centuries by infections that are rare for the modern world. Due to the fact that the infection from thawed graves is carried out mainly by melt water, the person who receives it will not guess for a long time that he is sick, and will seek medical help with a delay. It will be difficult to identify a dangerous place.

There is also encouraging information: dangerous microorganisms from the past did not pass natural selection for resistance to antibiotics and did not mutate, adapting to them. The variability in these unicellular pathogens is significantly inferior in speed to that of viruses. Once out, they will not become a wonder for scientists and a death sentence for humanity. Modern medicine is ready to fight uninvited guests from the permafrost.


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