Pandora’s box of viruses frozen for millions of years in the Arctic and it is better that we never open

Pandora's box of viruses frozen for millions of years in the Arctic and it is better that we never open

In 2016, a Siberian heat wave exposed the remains of an anthrax-infected reindeer , releasing spores of a 75-year-old bacterium into the air, water and the food chain, resulting in the death of a 10-year-old boy from age

These are some consequences of opening Pandora’s box in the Arctic, that is, melting the permafrost in which viruses and bacteria are conserved that it would be better if they did not roam freely around our planet again .

Permafrost melt

Permafrost is the permanently frozen (but not permanently covered in ice or snow) layer of soil in very cold or periglacial regions. Two years before the aforementioned infected reindeer case, researchers isolated a 32,000-year-old "giant virus" (so named because it can be seen under light microscopy) from a sample of Siberian permafrost .

Pithovirus Sibericum Sketch

A specimen is approximately 1.5 µm in length and 0.5 µm in diameter, making it the largest virus known to date. It is 50% larger than pandoraviruses, the previous largest known virus. The smallest free-living eukaryote is even larger than Ostreococcus.

Jean-Michel Claverie and Chantal Abergel , discoverers of the virus, speculate that the Pithovirus could be a remnant of a large group of parasites that attacked common life forms early in Earth’s history.

Despite all that Methuselah time that had passed, the virus, dubbed Pithovirus sibericum , was still infectious (although only, fortunately, for the Acanthamoeba , a single-celled organism). We may not be so lucky next time, as David Farrier recounts in his book Footprints: in search of the world we will leave behind :

The legend of Pandora’s box tells how all the evils of the world escaped when Pandora opened a cursed chest that Zeus gave her. But the global thaw promises a liberation far more terrible than the plague that emerged from Pandora’s box. If the worst predictions come true, with the flood will come the drought, since the thaw will cause the sea level to rise while billions of people who depend on glaciers for water will find that that source (who thought that would last forever) will have completely disappeared.