Pathogens could be freed from thawing permafrost, scientists warn
French researchers are cautioning that the mining and drilling of northern regions could potentially free dormant pathogens out of the frozen soil.
Published on March 4, 2014 | The Globe and Mail
by Tu Thanh Ha
French researchers who have revived a 30,000-year-old giant virus from a sample of Siberian permafrost are cautioning that the mining and drilling of northern regions could potentially free dormant pathogens out of the frozen soil.
“The thawing of permafrost either from global warming or industrial exploitation of circumpolar regions might not be exempt from future threats to human or animal health,” the researchers said in their paper published in this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The paper’s authors, Chantal Abergel and Jean-Michel Claverie of the Centre national de la recherche scientifique, were able to discover a new type of giant virus that they named Pithovirus, from pithos, the Greek word for the kind of amphora that looks like the micro-organism they have identified.
The Pithovirus infects amebas and is not a threat to humans, Dr. Abergel said in an interview.
Pithovirus does not mutate a lot so there is no risk of a “genomic drift” into a more toxic strain, even if it replicates in a fashion similar to the pox virus, she added.
Nevertheless, the paper by Dr. Abergel and Dr. Claverie warns about what could happen now that climatic changes have thawed permafrost areas and made it easier to exploit Arctic regions for natural resources.
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