Scientists unleash electronic ‘zombie’ pathogen from permafrost

Researchers using a computer simulation suggest there is a “substantial risk” from ancient ‘zombie’ microbes emerging from melting permafrost.

“The idea that ancient pathogens trapped in ice or hidden in remote laboratory facilities could break free – usually with catastrophic consequences for human beings – has been a fruitful source of inspiration for generations of science fiction novelists and screenwriters,” the researchers write in a summary of the paper, published in PLOS Computational Biology.  

“The scientific debate on the topic has been dominated by speculation due to the challenges in collecting appropriate data or designing experiments to elaborate and test hypotheses.

“For the first time, we provide an extensive exploration of the ecological risk posed to modern ecological communities by these ‘time-travelling’ pathogens.”

Deep under the permafrost lie viruses and bacteria humans have never seen before. But with climate change melting the world’s ice at an unprecedented rate, these microbes are slowly being uncovered.

So, should we be worried? The team of researchers from Australia and around the world have created a simulation using a digital version of these ‘time-travelling pathogens’ to understand how this could all play out.

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The scientists used a program called Avida which is an ‘artificial life system’ of digital microorganisms. Although this sounds a little far away from microbes like the giant permafrost viruses already uncovered, scientists regularly do these types of ‘in sillico’ experiments when they don’t have easy access to the tests in the real world.

“This knowledge gap is primarily due to the challenges of collecting relevant data or setting up adequate experiments involving more than few species,” the researchers write in their paper.

“In this context, artificial life simulations – where entire communities of simple organisms can be studied at both ecological and evolutionary timescales – offer a powerful tool to circumvent these challenges and obtain heretofore unexplored insight.”

They showed in these simulations that the electronic pathogens could often survive and continue evolving. A small number of them – around 3% – were able to effectively invade and even become dominant. In about 1% of cases these ‘invaders’ either substantially increased or decreased the ‘richness’ of the electronic microbe population.

This is a low percentage, but the team suggest that because so many potential viruses and bacteria could be revived with the continued melt of the ice sheets, this is still a ‘substantial risk’.

Given the sheer abundance of ancient microorganisms regularly released into modern communities, such a low probability of outbreak events still presents substantial risks,” they write.

“Our findings therefore suggest that unpredictable threats so far confined to science fiction and conjecture could in fact be powerful drivers of ecological change.”

Despite being confined to a researcher’s computer, these sorts of studies provide scientists with the ability to assess the risks in these melting worlds.

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