Frozen in Time: What can Melting Ice Teach Us about Disease?


Frozen in Time: Could Ancient Viruses and Bacteria Re-surface from Melting Ice?

Bringing extinct creatures back to life is a fascinating proposition for geneticists interested in animal cloning to help balance environmental habitats. What else could the bodies of frozen woolly mammoths and the ground where they are unearthed tell us about virology, disease, and health?

By Mark Zuleger-Thyss


Discussions about restoring the fragile Arctic tundra ecosystem often include resurrecting the long-lost mammoth. Proponents see such plans as achievable solutions to climate change and to preserve the Asian elephant, to whom the woolly mammoth is most closely related. While these proposals are fraught with ethical issues, you must wonder what else is beneath the frozen Arctic.

Since the 1970s, the permafrost has reduced in thickness, and climate change projections suggest it will decrease further. The DNA scientists have extracted from animal remains and plants frozen in permafrost is often too fragmented and degraded. But that fact will not deter researchers interested in bringing extinct creatures back to life.


And what about ancient viruses waiting for their chance to be released? Could their virulent nature have survived? A basic understanding of pathogens will help.


Viruses: No Color & Smaller than the Wavelength of Light

Viruses are so small they can only be seen under an electron microscope (EM), and despite this tininess, science knows a lot about them. Many people believe viruses are brightly colored, but they are not. Color is used in scientific communication in exploring how viruses can be represented and interpreted.

Mycobacterium tuberculosis (MTB) may be the oldest pathogen that infected humankind. Often depicted in red, green, or purple - these colors are most fitting to convey its virulence.



Viruses existed almost 3.5 billion years before humans evolved on our planet. "Viruses are as old as life itself, if not older," says Mark Young, a virologist at Montana State University in Bozeman. They're neither dead nor alive, yet their genetic material is embedded in our own DNA.

Modern viruses share a common forerunner that appeared before diverse viruses evolved to infect the three main domains of life: bacteria, archaea, and eukaryotes. Viruses are minuscule and simple; they can't even replicate on their own. They carry only the essential genetic information they need to enter a host cell and cajole it into making new copies of itself. 


Viruses | Unstable and Android-like

Viruses don't grow and they can't make their own energy. They are not made from cells and cannot keep themselves stable. Instead, they replicate and adapt to their environment, and it might be best to think of them as more like androids rather than living organisms. Without cells, viruses are "inanimate complex organic matter."

Viruses cannot be included in the tree of life because they do not share characteristics with cells. For example, no single gene is shared by all viruses or viral lineages. Alternatively, cellular life has a single, common origin, while viruses are polyphyletic – they have many evolutionary origins.


Under Deep Layers of Ice

In 2013, Russian scientists excavated a fully-grown female woolly mammoth with flowing blood trapped in the Siberian ice on the Lyakhovsky Islands. The blood found in ice cavities below the mammoth's belly was 10 degrees Celcius below zero and was immediately contained in test tubes for analysis. "We were really surprised to find mammoth blood and muscle tissue," scientist Semyon Grigoriev told the Siberian Times. Grigoriev hailed the 10,000-year-old carcass as "the best-preserved mammoth in the history of paleontology."



In 2021, a different team of scientists collected viruses from 15,000-year-old ice samples taken from glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau. From that exploration, 33 viral genomes were found locked in ice cores, and at least 28 of them were new to science. Four of the viruses identified were from virus families that typically infect bacteria and plants. This discovery provides a fascinating look back at the history of the evolution of viruses, and what might still hide deep in frozen soil.

Trapped dust particles, traces of gas, microbes, and plant matter from different periods are there to be explored. And as the land beneath permafrost becomes more accessible, its value as a natural resource makes peeking under tundra and taiga more important for industrialists.


Some researchers believe that the thawing of permafrost due to climate change could eventually release viruses that might infect humans.


Virus Evolution and Climate Change

Global warming could release ancient bacteria, viruses, and fungi from frozen lakes and glaciers. If this happens, humans could become exposed to viruses and diseases they have not encountered in hundreds of years.

After lying dormant for at least 30,000 years, scientists found an ancient virus called Pithovirus sibericum in a deep layer of ice in the Siberian permafrost. After it thawed, it became infectious again. While the contagion posed no danger to humans or animals, other viruses could be unleashed as the ground becomes exposed, say French scientists. "This is the first time we've seen a virus that's still infectious after this length of time," said Professor Jean-Michel Claverie at the University of Aix-Marseille in France.

Researchers believe that other more deadly pathogens could be locked in the earth's permafrost. Ancient strains of the smallpox virus, which was declared eradicated 30 years ago, could pose a risk in our modern times. Smallpox was never eliminated from the planet - only from the surface. But it's unclear if thousands or even millions of years of freezing conditions could prevent some viruses from becoming active again.



Little is known about viruses and microbes in extreme environments. For example, meltwater from glaciers could release microscopic lifeforms into the atmosphere that have the potential to shape the future of mankind. The dangers of viruses popping up from under ice and spreading are probably much overblown, as viruses need a host cell to replicate. While this is unlikely to happen, it is also not impossible.

An anthrax outbreak in Siberia is believed to be the result of the pathogen preserved in reindeer carcasses. Frozen for decades, the bodies thawed out of the ground during a hot summer, releasing the still infectious anthrax spores. The virulent bacterium leaked into the water, soil, and food supply. A 12-year-old boy died from the disease, and dozens more people were sickened and hospitalized. This unfortunate event occurred because Anthrax can stay alive in the permafrost for up to 2,500 years.


The Holistic Angle | Don't Wave that Magic Wand

If you are like most people, you might wish for the obliteration of all viruses. Yet this would be a fatal mistake – deadlier, in fact, than any virus could ever be.

"If all viruses suddenly disappeared, the world would be a wonderful place for about a day and a half, and then we'd all die – that's the bottom line," says Tony Goldberg, an epidemiologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "All the essential things they do in the world far outweigh the bad things."

Most viruses are not pathogenic to humans. Many play integral roles in propping up ecosystems. Others maintain the health of individual organisms – everything from fungi and plants to insects and humans.

Phages, for example, are tremendously important. Their name means "to devour" in Greek – and devour they do. Phages are the primary predators of the bacterial world, and we would be in deep trouble without them.



Ancient Viruses | Ancient Diseases

Then there are others, the ancient viruses, which cause deadly diseases. These viruses and bacteria cause Yellow Fever, Measles, Diphtheria, Poliomyelitis, Leishmaniasis, Cholera, Leprosy, and Typhoid fever.

Typhoid fever is rare in developed countries. But in developing nations, it is still a threat, especially for children. Typhoid fever is caused by Salmonella typhi bacteria and is found in contaminated food and water or close contact with an infected person. Most people with typhoid fever feel better quickly after starting antibiotic treatment, but others may die of complications.


Food as Medicine: Natural Remedies & Foods Can Assist in Recovery | Case in Point: Typhoid

"Western" medicines are available for patients with Typhoid fever besides other "natural" methods. But this does not suggest that diseases can be healed by natural means alone. Also, some natural treatments and foods might be beneficial in alleviating symptoms.

Typhoid fever is a bacterial infection that affects the intestinal tract and then spreads to the bloodstream. Salmonella typhi is the bacteria that causes Typhoid. Try home remedies with Western medications to promote quicker recovery and better results. But always check with your doctor first.

Drink lots of fluids and use cold compresses. Try drinking diluted apple cider vinegar and eating garlic. A concoction of basil and honey might help remove the bacteria that causes typhoid. Apple cider vinegar has acidic properties that can bring a high fever down. It can draw out the heat from the body of the person suffering from typhoid.

Cayenne, goldenseal root, and myrrh is available in capsule form. You can find it at most health stores, and it is very helpful for typhoid fever. Some antimicrobial herbs help treat typhoid fever. Investigate herbs like dandelion, echinacea, goldenseal, yarrow, sage, and chamomile.

Typhoid often gives rise to diarrhea. This results in a loss of body fluid and water-soluble vitamins. You can compensate for diarrhea by drinking lots of fluids in the form of tender coconut water. Consume plenty of orange juice and fresh apple juice, too. Pectin found in bananas helps the intestines absorb fluids and end diarrhea. Potassium in bananas helps in replacing the electrolytes lost through loose stools.



Triphala Churan is an essential ayurvedic digestive aid that helps resolve fever and typhoid. Churan is a mixture of herbs and spices that is very tangy to taste and accelerates the process of digestion. Pharmacists provide this in the form of powder and tablets.

Cloves have essential oils containing antibacterial properties that fight against bacteria that cause typhoid. Pomegranates are effective against the dehydration that often comes with typhoid.


Mammuthus primigenius & More | Yuka, Lyuba, and Cloning à la Dolly the Sheep

Before their extinction, grazing animals like mammoths and bison maintained the grasslands in our planet's northern-most reaches. Human hunting and climate warming led to the vanishing of these fertile areas called the Mammoth Steppe. This grazing ecosystem also teemed with bison, reindeer, wolves, and tigers.

These grazing herbivores maintained the pastures by trampling down grass, shrubs, and mosses, knocking down trees, and compacting snow. They acted as gardeners by propagating seeds and fertilizing the landscape with their nutritious dung. These gigantic Ice Age herbivores compacted the snow and earth as they foraged and kept the ground frozen underneath.

Reintroducing mammoths and other large mammals like moose, Yakutian horse, Kalmykian cow, muskoxen, and yak might help revitalize and slow down permafrost thaw and the release of carbon - or not.


"What we need to fight climate change is woolly mammoths" — said no climate scientist, ever.


Some detractors say that even if the formidable technological hurdles of creating hybrids of endangered elephants and extinct mammoths were overcome, it would be challenging to establish self-sustaining herds. Moreover, the effect of large herbivores on the tundra is not proven science, and the impact would be negligible even by the year 2200.

Before resurrecting the woolly mammoth to the tundra and much of the taiga with abundant grazing herds of antelope, deer, caribou, and bison, we need to think about viruses under the ice. So, it seems worthwhile to have an airtight method of controlling the release of so-called "ancient viruses."



© 2021-2022 Mark Zuleger-Thyss, Garden of Healing. All rights reserved.



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