Ancient pathogens released from melting ice a real problem

Ancient pathogens released from melting ice are a problem

A potential global issue.


Scientists have found that ancient pathogens released from melting ice are a real problem for the world, and we should thread carefully.

What once seemed like a science fiction fantasy—a deadly virus awakening from ancient ice—is emerging as a real-world threat. The new scientific analysis warns that ancient pathogens, long trapped in glaciers and permafrost, could be released by climate change and create havoc in modern ecosystems.

Ancient Pathogens: Released From Melting Ice?

Science fiction often tantalizes us with tales of dangerous organisms locked in ice, from shape-shifting aliens in Antarctica to super-parasites in Siberian mammoths. Now, this far-fetched idea has become a chilling reality. As the world warms, pathogens frozen for millennia in ice caps and glaciers could awaken and threaten our ecosystems.

Historical Precedents

Scientists have found several instances of ancient pathogens being revived:

  • In 2003, bacteria were awakened from a 750,000-year-old ice core on the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau.
  • A 30,000-year-old “zombie” Pithovirus sibericum virus was revived from Siberian permafrost in 2014.
  • An anthrax outbreak in 2016, killing thousands of reindeer in Siberia, was attributed to thawing Bacillus anthracis spores.

The warming climate is causing a rapid melt, releasing an estimated four sextillion microorganisms from ice each year—a figure equal to the number of stars in the universe. Scientists have identified remarkable genetic compatibility between viruses from Arctic lake sediments and potential living hosts.


Assessing the Risk

Despite the astronomical number of organisms being released, no one has been able to quantify the risk to modern ecosystems—until now.

In a study published in PLOS Computational Biology, scientists calculated the ecological risks of releasing ancient viruses. Using software called Avida, scientists simulated the effects of releasing one type of ancient pathogen into modern biological communities.

Potential Consequences

The results were alarming:

  • 1% of simulated releases could cause major environmental damage and a loss of host organisms globally.
  • The pathogens often survived and evolved in the modern world, sometimes becoming dominant and likely causing losses to host diversity.
  • In a worst-case but plausible scenario, invasion reduced the host community size by 30%.

Extinction and Disease

These findings suggest that this previously fictional threat could drive ecological change. Although the study did not model human risks, the fact that these “time-traveling” pathogens could establish and degrade host communities is concerning.

The study highlights another potential source of species extinction, urging society to understand and prepare for these risks. Notable viruses like SARS-CoV-2, Ebola, and HIV were likely transmitted to humans from other animal hosts, so a once ice-bound virus entering the human population is conceivable.


A Warning and A Call to Action

While the likelihood of a catastrophic pathogen emerging from melting ice remains low, scientists warn that it’s no longer a mere fantasy. The awakening of ancient microbes poses a substantial danger, urging the world to heed the warning and prepare for potential consequences.

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Written by Ivan Petricevic

I've been writing passionately about ancient civilizations, history, alien life, and various other subjects for more than eight years. You may have seen me appear on Discovery Channel's What On Earth series, History Channel's Ancient Aliens, and Gaia's Ancient Civilizations among others.

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