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Deep Frozen Arctic Microbes Are Waking Up (www.scientificamerican.com)
240 points by jonbaer 12 days ago | hide | past | web | 132 comments | favorite





> Permafrost thaw in Siberia led to a 2018 anthrax outbreak and the death of 200,000 reindeer and a child.

This is terrifying and not hypothetical.


To be precise, the 200,000 reindeer were culled [1].

[1] https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10393-020-01474-z...


Full paper: https://sci-hub.se/downloads/2020-02-04/2c/10.1007@s10393-02...

This presents some alternate hypotheses for the outbreak and claims Anthrax is fairly unique in its ability to survive repeated freeze-thaw cycles.


Thanks for pointing that out. For the unfamiliar (like me a few seconds ago) culling means "to reduce or control the size of (something, such as a herd) by removal (as by hunting or slaughter) of especially weak or sick individuals " [1]

[1] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/cull


Anthrax is found in the soil around the world and generally effects grazing animals like livestock, deer, etc. It is not contagious and isn't something you should lose sleep worrying about. It captures the public's attention because it has been weaponized.

https://www.cdc.gov/anthrax/basics/index.html


> Although it is rare in the United States, people can get sick with anthrax if they come in contact with infected animals or contaminated animal products.

> Anthrax is not contagious, which means you can’t catch it like the cold or flu.

I'm not sure what the technical definition of "contagious" is here but I'm also not sure its helpful when you can catch the disease from an infected animal.


Usually you get anthrax from contact with an animal. Pretty easy to avoid.

Weaponized anthrax spores are more virulent and spread by aircraft or other munition. You might recall just after 9/11 someone mailed anthrax to public officials in envelopes.


It basically means it won't spread through the population like the flu, which makes outbreaks easy to contain. Corpses need to be properly disposed of and you should avoid contact with the scabs or whatnot from people with anthrax lesions, but that's about it. There are cases of anthrax in livestock in America a few times a year but it's really not much cause for concern. It used to be far more common, but now livestock get vaccinated for it in regions where it's know to occur.

>> This is terrifying

Why?

It’s definitely concerning but is it in the same league as say the fact America appears to have lost desire to retain its leadership in the world? Are we ready for another country to decide to take a shot at that role? That sounds like a terrifying prospect to me because i just can’t see that happening without bloodshed.

In years gone past, whatever the crisis, America would step up and lead. Over the past few years it’s chosen, as is its right to do so, to step back from world leadership (trade, peace keeping, covid response, immigration, climate change, etc etc)

What about a super volcano eruption tomorrow, we know one is coming but we don’t know when yet we do very little to prepare for it, e.g. post massive disaster food crop growing research etc.

What about the fact that electrical grids are creaking at the seams today in many countries and that we know it only takes around 2 weeks of no electrical grid to reach catastrophic changes to way of life (hospitals offline, perishable food supplies mostly gone, commerce halted etc etc)

The really terrifying things don’t get much in the way of discourse. How can this possibly be in the same league as the terrifying stuff we’re a bit scared to talk about because there aren’t really any great answers and there’s no way to predict when so we have an easy way to ignore it all.


> In years gone past, whatever the crisis, America would step up and lead.

Many would argue that America was the one who created many of those crises in the first place.

American capitalism has led the world to the brink of destruction by climate change, so a loss in status is absolutely warranted.

> The really terrifying things don’t get much in the way of discourse. How can this possibly be in the same league as the terrifying stuff we’re a bit scared to talk about because there aren’t really any great answers and there’s no way to predict when so we have an easy way to ignore it all.

A super volcano eruption is beyond our control, so there's no point getting worked up about that. Nothing else pales in comparison to the destruction that's coming as a direct result of USA turning a blind eye to climate change.


> American capitalism has led the world to the brink of destruction by climate change

This sort of alarmist language makes it really difficult to take anything you said seriously. I'm fairly confident most people think climate change is concerning, but not "on the brink of destruction"

"American capitalism" is also responsible for the greatest reduction of poverty globally in all of human history.

> Nothing else pales in comparison to the destruction that's coming as a direct result of USA turning a blind eye to climate change.

Interesting, because the United States has actually been lowering carbon dioxide emissions, and total output absolutely pales in comparison to China which has seen nearly exponential growth [0].

This may be completely wrong, but it seems like a majority of climate change talk always revolves around how the US can be doing more, and rarely about what other countries can do.

Interesting how America is always to blame for the world's problems. I'm not saying America has been perfect, but it certainly does more good than bad.

[0] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_carbon_...


>> "American capitalism" is also responsible for the greatest reduction of poverty globally in all of human history.

Is that true? I’ve heard this recently from republican leaning sources but it doesn’t appear to be true.

E.g. of the 30 countries with the greatest reduction in poverty rates in the last 20 years its hard to pin point the American influence?

Stretching back further, global poverty reduction begins in earnest in the 19th century yet American capitalism only begins in around the start of the 20th century.

>> it seems like a majority of climate change talk always revolves around how the US can be doing more

An American citizen emits 16 tonnes of co2 per year. Who else even comes close?


>> "American capitalism" is also responsible for the greatest reduction of poverty globally in all of human history.

> Is that true? I’ve heard this recently from republican leaning sources but it doesn’t appear to be true.

I can't find sources to determine the exact contribution of the US to this, but free market capitalism in general is definitely responsible [0].

>> it seems like a majority of climate change talk always revolves around how the US can be doing more

> An American citizen emits 16 tonnes of co2 per year. Who else even comes close?

Canada is higher, Australia is close behind. I mentioned this before, but US co2 emissions have been in decline, while many other countries are increasing. It will not take India long before it eclipses the US.

America represents 15% of total co2 emissions [1]. If we wanted to reduce globally everyone needs to participate.

[0] https://catalyst.independent.org/2019/06/14/capitalism-remai...

[1] https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/global-greenhouse-gas-emiss...


> "American capitalism" is also responsible for the greatest reduction of poverty globally in all of human history.

European capitalism

>Interesting how America is always to blame for the world's problems. I'm not saying America has been perfect, but it certainly does more good than bad.

Tell that to the Middle East, parts of South East Asia and South Americas.

> talk always revolves around how the US can be doing more, and rarely about what other countries can do.

Now we get to the nub.

The key word here is responsibility. And dont look at production level CO2 emission. The US eclipses every nation on earth when looking at per person energy consumption and resulting CO2 footprint[0]

If India and China's citizens lived like Americans, it would be a global catastrophe. Those two nations are still developing their grids and can't pour money into alternative energy industries and R&D because of cost and scale[1]

[0] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_electri...

[1] https://www.iea.org/reports/energy-technology-rdd-budgets-20...

Post script: I'm a neutral observer. But take everything I say with a truckload of salt.


wait until permafrost thawes and releases gigatonnes of methane into the air that woukd turn our planet into a large greenhouse.

from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arctic_methane_emissions : The Permian–Triassic extinction event (the Great Dying) may have been caused by release of methane from clathrates. An estimated 52% of marine genus became extinct, representing 96% of all marine species.


Is there an estimated timeframe on approximately when this will happen?

Isn’t it already happening? Is that what is creating the huge methane explosions and craters in Siberia?

Yes. Check the Yamal Peninsula in Google Maps and you realize this kind of cratering is a process that has been going on for thousands of years (since the ice age really!).

The scary part is that it's accelerating in on a timescale that's relevant to our needs as a species.

I think the largest deposits would take thousands of years to be affected, but there are shallow deposits that could be released, especially those near glaciers, where the glacier melting allows the nearby seabed to rise.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clathrate_gun_hypothesis


What kind of quantity of newly released methane are we talking about, compared to the methane produced by trees and other plants?[1]

1. https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=515109...


1% of the carbon stored in the permafrost is roughly as much a all of humanity is currently emitting per year. It's a lot. Permafrost thawing is an important tipping point in the climate system.



Could we just replace the ice with concrete (before it thaws)?

And that, schoolchildren, is why Siberia is the world’s largest roller rink.

"Mycoremediation is the bioremediation technique which employ fungi in the removal of toxic compounds; it could be carried out in the presence of both filamentous fungi (moulds) and macrofungi (mushrooms). Both classes possess enzymes for the degradation of a large variety of pollutants"

Maybe Paul Stammets, Michael Pollan, and the entire next generation of mycology experts can find a way to sporolate these areas in an effective way. Even if it just encapsulates and doesn't eliminate, it's still something.


Might be time for some Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind style remediation


Life that has been continually evolving as the environment changes is much more likely to develop into a super threat than life that has been frozen for ages and is waking up into a world that it is not optimized for.

Anthrax outbreaks have occurred all around the world. Just because it occurred in Siberia and there is evidence that it survives being frozen for long periods of time doesn't mean the risk of some super threat from permafrost is of any exceptional significance.

It seems however that people like to be frightened and to have something to panic about, especially Americans, and your newspapers and magazines cater to this by cherry picking data that can be twisted to tell a scary story.


Yeah they like the Smilla's Sense of Snow shiver :) scientificamerican and history channel....

The sci-fi novel "Mind Painter" explores this in depth - good, scary stuff!

Hi,

Where can I find this book? Is it this one (coming out next month)? https://reedsy.com/discovery/book/mind-painter-tom-b-night/u...

Thanks.



Amazing that microbes can just defrost and carry on with their life. Why can't animals do that?

Complexity mostly.

It’s a lot easier to protect a single cell than it is trillions working in concert.


Doesn't the water in our bodies tear through everything when it turns to ice?

Nearly everything you see on report(s) pertaining to the Arctic region never mention microbes @ all ... ie: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bEsPP8aJJ3c

This feels like it would have potential for a Sci Fi thriller.

This article was clearly written primarily by the climatologists and not the microbiologist who is mentioned in the author list. Or perhaps, they are being knowingly irresponsible to further an agenda.

The climate threat is sufficient on its own. We don't need to dilute it's seriousness by inventing threats such as ancient arctic viruses and microbes. I'm not advocating that we don't study these phenomenon, or that some complex phenomena don't have the potential to be globe altering, but this article is just fearmongering.

There is no arctic virus or microbe that is going to terrorize the world. There is no gene that will suddenly be distributed and wreak havoc on mammalian populations, like the article is clearly insinuating.

>Permafrost thaw in Siberia led to a 2018 anthrax outbreak and the death of 200,000 reindeer and a child.

Anthrax is not going to sporulate around the globe from the Arctic. Bacillus anthracis already live everywhere in the globe and only sporulate when they are stressed. The reason the ones in the permafrost were dangerous is because they were stressed from the cold. However, the flip side is no one lives there, making it a complete isolated incident. Additionally, the reindeer were culled, not directly killed by the anthrax toxin.

>Organisms that co-evolved within now-extinct ecosystems from the Cenozoic to the Pleistocene may also emerge and interact with our modern environment in entirely novel ways. A potential example, the emerging Orthopoxvirus species Alaskapox causing skin lesions, has appeared and disappeared in Alaska twice in the last five years.

"Alaskapox" is an orthopoxvirus. These are not novel. They are perhaps the most widespread mammalian virus. They evolve rapidly and species jump from time to time. 33% of known orthoxpoxviridae were discovered in the last detect The reported human cases are thought to be from squirrel contact, and not humam-to-human transmissible. To date, there is zero evidence that "alaskapox" is from arctic/frozen origin. Exactly no evidence, despite overwhelming evidence that orthopoxviruses do evolve to new hosts and jump species. Additionally, there are dozens of emergent viruses around the world that are nowhere near the Arctic. An emergency virus near the Arctic is about as correlated to global warming as a baseball bat is correlated to deep sea diving.

>it is challenging to assess risks accurately without improved Arctic microbial datasets. We should pay attention to both known unknowns, such as antibiotic-resistant bacteria,and unknown unknowns, including the potential risks from the resurrection of ancient and poorly described viral genomes from Arctic ice by synthetic biologists.

This is just totally irresponsible fearmongering for a few reasons:

1) Humans did not and still don't live in these regions in any quantity. Which means no intact, infectious virion that targets humans is going to be found there, and even if it somehow was, it's not going to escape there. This is not Wuhan, this is the Arctic. Again, novel viruses emerge frequently, and are inherently limited, frequently, by their environments. Marburg, Ebola, Hantavirus, MERS, are all substantially greater threats than anything found in the Arctic because they have coevolved with their hosts for millions more years. These old, otherwise extinct arctic virus we haven't seen in eons (if ever)? They died out because they couldn't keep up with their hosts, or because their hosts disappeared and there was nothing left they were capable of infecting. Either scenario results in: not a direct threat.

2) Genome transfer. What if somehow SARS-CoV 2 picks up some gene that somehow wipes us out? This is extremely unlikely to be bad. Most genes are absolutely ancient already. Those that didn't make it, didn't make it for a reason. All of the genes a virus needs are already out there in the virome, and they recombine all the time. That's why next year's flu is an infinitely greater threat than anything buried in arctic ice. Also, if the genes were that much of an advantage, they wouldn't have extincted in the first place, OR they will be entirely incompatible with modern hosts.

3) There's a limit to viral lethality. If the virus kills quickly, it won't spread. This is why super lethal viruses tend to be endemic to areas, and their reservoir is usually hosts like bats where the virus is non-lethal. Super lethal viruses don't spread well, and it's why something like CoV or the flu are much scarier and kill many more people than ebola.


Would be a fitting end to 2020; super COVID released from ancient arctic ice.

Perhaps we'll do better for the "next" pandemic now that we have the infrastructure in place and learned some lessons from COVID? Maybe I'm grasping for silver linings and being too optimistic towards humanity...

>lessons from COVID

what in our response to COVID was better and more effective than our response to Black Death and Spanish flu? I don't see any improvement despite 700 and 100 years of accumulated knowledge and technology development since then. There has so far been no indication that the only things we were able to muster - archaic lockdown and masks - can prevent it from reaching the 20-30% spread, basically the level of unmitigated spread.

I mean, for example, 700 years ago people couldn't know that that ship coming into the port of Venice brings the infection. A year ago we knew that this plane from Wuhan most probably does.


Maybe not the USA but Asians countries which one could argue will carry the torch of progress did improve.

yes, like Taiwan who 1. did learn the lesson from SARS and did immediate quarantine upon just hearing (i.e. de-facto using modern communication technology) about some strange flu appearing in China. 2. Used modern technology to do contact tracing. 3. Quickly scaled up extensive testing - again modern science and technology. Most places did nothing like these 3 steps. Those steps weren't available centuries ago and could have prevented the covid from becoming pandemic.

Another noticeable difference is that Taiwan actions were real actions where the government did actually performed them whereis typical "actions" we see around like lockdown and masks are just government orders without the governments actually doing anything.


Many orders of magnitude fewer deaths, for one?

Orders fewer? Lets look at the Spanish flu in US - the US wasn't ravaged by WWI/revolutions/rebelions, didn't have systemic hunger, etc. and had time to and implemented some of those measures like quarantines/lockdowns/masks, so very reasonable to compare to today. Spanish flu killed 700K in US . Covid already 250K in US - even if we imagine that we're at the peak today, it still means end number like 500K.

Food for thought:

- The average age of death during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic was 28 [1].

- 70% of U.S. COVID-19 deaths are age 70 and above [2].

These are very different pandemics, and it's not clear what comparisons between the two actually tell us.

[1]: https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1918-commemoratio...

[2]: https://www.pnas.org/content/117/36/22035


One interesting thing to consider is that the US isn’t actually the center of the world, so generalizing it’s reaction to the rest of the world makes no sense.

Looking at the world instead, COVID has killed just over a million people so far, and Spanish Flu is esimated to have killed anywhere between 17 and 100 million people, at a time when the world population was much less and travel was much harder. So yes, orders of magnitude.


I would only like to add that the US population was only around 100m around 1920, and travel would have been much more limited. But overall I agree that the worldwide handling in 2020 has been sobering.

Why do you think that? They said the same thing after "swine flu" during Obama. Basically, we just got lucky.

“It is purely a fortuity that this isn’t one of the great mass casualty events in American history,” Ron Klain, who was Biden’s chief of staff at the time, said of H1N1 in 2019. “It had nothing to do with us doing anything right. It just had to do with luck. If anyone thinks that this can’t happen again, they don’t have to go back to 1918, they just have to go back to 2009, 2010 and imagine a virus with a different lethality, and you can just do the math on that.”

https://www.politico.com/news/2020/05/04/joe-biden-contain-h...


It's gonna come sooner rather than later. Humans encroach on the natural habitats of animals all over the world, which increases the number zoonoses dramatically. Most such spillovers don't cause any further human to human spread. Think of MERS. But there are spillovers that do spread between humans, like in the case of SARS-Cov-2. While the COVID pandemic is a major catastrophy, we were still quite lucky. MERS has a much higher case fatality ratio. Something that spreads as easily as SARS-Cov-2 while being as deadly as MERS is entirely possible.

We should start preparing once most of the population is vaccinated and human societies have returned to normal. Develop and test antivirals targetting the conserved proteins in major virus families. Build a pipeline that can respond to new viruses quickly with a vaccine. Create capacities to quickly ramp up mass production of PPE. Map the viruses that appear in animals around us to know what we are up to.

I hope that political leaders will listen to the people doing such proposals.


I hope that the new mRNA technology the Pfizer and AZ vaccines are based on will help us develop and manufacture more quickly. The delivery mechanism will be well-understood, the pipeline will be there, the limiting factor would still be knowing what to target and screening for safety/efficacy but it should still help.

I hope similar things can be done with rapid antigen/PCR testing equipment.


One of the lessons that I've learned from this pandemic is that despite overwhelming evidence and over a million deaths, there's a non-trivial amount of people who still believe it's not real, or who refuse to wear a mask, or who protest against the few, mild, reasonable measures we can take to get through this alive. So if anything, my faith in humankind has gone down :(

The fact that people can be literally dying from COVID in a hospital yet still deny its existence has almost totally destroyed any faith I have in humanity.

good friend of mine is a nurse. She has seen people in the ER with Covid deny that it exists too. There's people currently on oxygen who go "nah that doesn't exist I don't have it, the media made that up". So yeah

Thankfully, life has a way of selecting against people who fail to act to preserve their own.

(Said as someone whose fiance is an ICU nurse)


It's a strangely western phenomenon. People might be callous about safety measures here in India, but absolutely no one in my extended circle of friends and family has ever denied its existence or that it's something people need to be careful about.

Globally there's far more trust for institutions and authority than in America. Cultures which respect the elderly, the professional, and the official. Even beyond respect it extends to obedience in some places.

I definitely see it in my own culture, which is Arab. It's a double edged sword, and can be said to enable further oppression, but in a crisis situation it's useful.



Place your faith in natural selection.

In addition to being ugly, this sentiment is pretty misguided. The selection pressure is far too mild to have any evolutionary impact.

To whit: covid selects primarily against individuals beyond their reproductive age, selects far too small of the population (unless we see these deaths continue for decades), and is only mildly selecting for anti mask populations.


What helps me to keep faith in humanity is imagining being alive during Galileo‘s time. How suffocating it must have been for him to find everyone everywhere rejecting science..? Sure we have a large number of people now that don’t believe in masks, vaccines, etc.., but keep in mind that the majority of the popular vote in the US voted for someone that does believe in science. Progress is being made, just sometimes it requires a step back to see it.

> majority of the popular vote in the US voted for someone that does believe in science

You're an optimistic one. They would have voted for a three legged donkey with a nose ring and gold tooth. As long as it wasn't DJT.


Yeah well back when YouTube started censoring videos suggesting a connection between vitamin D deficiency and covid it became pretty clear times are not particularly changed from Galieo’s.

> majority of the popular vote in the US voted for someone that does believe in science

Why would Trump support accelerated vaccines if he didn’t believe in COVID and science?


Millions upon millions die around the world each year due to poor choices. Don't let a fraction of that amount getting a bad flu change your outlook. Humanity is doing just fine. Could be better, could be worse, but take a slow walk around the block and I think you'll agree.

Fefe (a prominent German Internet commentator) posted a user's email yesterday which shows 3 perspectives I really haven't given much thought to.

The Google translation is pretty good, one big mistake though, it mistranslated "Asi-Kindern" as "Asian children" instead of "asocial kids": https://translate.google.com/translate?sl=auto&tl=en&u=http%... . And Case 1 is someone who builds booths for conventions.

A lot of people are going through the "denial" phase of grief and loss, although I wonder if this is valid for the people who showed up with guns at state capitols...


These perspectives make a lot of sense. The livelihoods of people who depend on non-pandemic circumstances are either destroyed or are on death's door. It's a lot easier for us working jobs that are easy to transition to remote and are mildly inconvenienced by the pandemic.

Hopelessness, stress and uncertainty all take huge mental tolls on us, and rejecting covid can help these people cope with this malaise.


That sounds more like the anger phase. Or maybe bargaining, ha!

Since this thing started, I re-read various publications about the black death. And the social reactions are so strikingly similar.

Do you have a list? I'm interested.

I was surprised that even in 2020 you have people making up straight lies about covid, while I believed that the wild theories that people had about the plague back in the day (e.g. the one that blamed the jews for it) were born from the fact that these people haven't went to school and were badly educated. But now they can write and relevant parts of the population claim similar things. And COVID is way less deadly than the bubonic plague is. This is a pandemic in easy mode. We would have been in for much worse had it been like the bubonic plague.


Sadly these days the ability to read and write is insufficient in order to be an informed citizen because of how complex our media world is.

One really needs to have some solid critical thinking skills in order to be able to judge the overall reliability and trustworthiness of a book, article, tweet, news episode, etc.

And ideally have some fundamental historical knowledge, basic math, logic, fundamentals of science, etc.

Id argue many Americans are, through no fault of their own, not well-educated.

EDIT:

I cribbed from Noam Chomskys description of what it means to be educated:

https://www.openculture.com/2016/04/noam-chomsky-defines-wha...

'Humboldt, Chomsky says, “argued, I think, very plausibly, that the core principle and requirement of a fulfilled human being is the ability to inquire and create constructively, independently, without external controls.” A true education, Chomsky suggests, opens a door to human intellectual freedom and creative autonomy.'


not OP but ...

John Kelly: The Great Mortality

An Intimate History of the Black Death

Robert S Gottfried: The Black Death - Natural and Human Disaster in Medieval Europe

Samuel K. Cohn, Jr.: Cultures of Plague: Medical Thought At the End of the Renaissance

Philip Ziegler: The Black Death

Giovanni Boccaccio: The Decameron

there are some fictional works that I enjoyed such as Ken Follet World Without End (should be read after Pillars of the Earth IMO) and it's probably not enough on-topic for what you're asking.


I second that - this is very interesting, I would love to see some sources, too.

Well, a crisis situation (be it real or manufactured) is a perfect vehicle for driving all kinds of agendas. It is natural there is some opposition.

The brain is part of the immune system.

Conspiracy culture is a huge problem in modern society that I fear we won't be able to solve

This was apparently learned in 1918 also.

The most pressing problem we have is not Coronavirus, it's Moronavirus.

Elon Musk is one person who is one person who thinks the restrictions are too strict. So maybe it is sensible for younger people to keep working and living near to normal.



"Rockabye baby, on the tree top..."

Don't worry about me, just getting those microbes back to bed...




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