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Melting glaciers could spread long-frozen viruses to new hosts

Photo of scientists working on a frozen arctic lake

Graham Colby, one of the research scientists, took this photo of researchers drilling through the ice of Lake Hazen to collect sediment samples in 2017.
A photo: Graeme Colby (Getty Images)

In the Canadian Arctic, climate change is combining viruses and potential hosts into new combinations, according to recently released data. published research. Each new interaction increases the risk of “viral spread”, i.e. pathogens pass to different hosts. And each case of spread is an opportunity for the virus to become more dangerous.

Viruses rely on their hosts to replicate and spread, but most viruses evolve in complex ways with the organisms that support them. Hosts develop defenses that must overcome viruses. But in cases of spread – when the virus passes from the ship to a new form of life – the carriers do not have developed immunity. As with the COVID-19 pandemic, when a virus first finds a new host, the results can be disastrous.

In a glacier-fed lake in the High Arctic, the more meltwater, the more likely the virus is to spread, scientists say. new research published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. The researchers took sediment samples from Lake Hazen, the world’s largest high-altitude Arctic lake, and sequenced the viral RNA, as well as the DNA of the animals, plants, and fungi within.

They found that in areas of the lake where glacial runoff is highest, the evolutionary overlap between viruses and possible host organisms is the least. indicating less overall history and more opportunities for failed intersections. And climate change is increasing runoff almost everywhere there are glaciers on Earth.

Glaciers are ancient ice. Since they formed thousands or tens of thousands of years ago (or even a a million years ago), they became time capsules of their environment, trapping organic material, rocks, and pathogens in their matrix. And since glaciers (or permafrost) are melting with climate change, they are bringing the same things back into our rapidly changing world.

“This is further evidence that climate change is causing more problems,” said the senior scientist. Stephan Aris-Brosoucomputational biologist from the University of Ottawa, during a video call. The researcher said he was surprised that he and his fellow researchers found such a correlation between glacial runoff and spread risk. But now that theyhe I wouldn’t be surprised if a new pandemic virus – be it fungal, plant or animal – emerges from melting glaciers.

Although, ARice Brosu carefully emphasized: “we do not predict the next pandemicand especially not the next big human viral explosion. A single study of lake sediments is not a crystal ball. “We don’t predict when, where, on what media or what viruses will lead to the next pandemic – nothing like that,” he said. said.

Side effects do not necessarily mean a pandemic, and the vast majority of viruses do not infect humans. In addition, Aris-Brosu and colleagues did not record the actual spread of side effects. or even identify specific viruses present in glacial deposits. Instead, they took a broad approach, grade how much melting has mixed together the various genetic histories in Lake Hazen.

Previous research has also shown that climate change chance increase related events, suh how by forcing animals to different habitats. But the new study is the first of its kind to quantify the risk of spread by sequencing all the genetic data present in the environment, according to the study authors. “To the best of our knowledge, this is the first attempt to evaluate the full virosphere of both DNA and RNA viruses, as well as their ability to spread,” they wrote in their report. paper.

Since this is a new approach, Aris-Brosou noted that their findings are very limited. First, there is no information to compare. The researchers were able to determine that the risk of the virus spreading increases with the melting of glaciers in lake sediments, but they cannot say how high the risk of virus spread is in Lake Hazen compared to any other place in the world. “Right now we don’t have a sense of scale for that,” Aris-Brosou said.

Also, because they sequenced so much genetic information, their conclusions are not specific. At the moment, scientists cannot say exactly which viruses lurk at the bottom of the lake, or even in what proportion. are still contagious. But in follow-up work already underway, Aris-Brosou hopes to determine how closely the detected viruses are related to modern pathogens. and if any are completely new to science.

However, the results underline a littlestudied the side effect of climate change. By burning fossil fuels, we are changing everything in our world, down to the interaction between life and viruses at the bottom of a glacial lake. “We are the main driving forces behind this situation,” Aris-Brosou said. So that, “We need to think carefully about how we lead our lives.” Otherwise, the growing risk of spread and any resulting future pandemics consequences we have to live with.

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