Study sounds alarm over “time-traveling” microbes

Digital simulations show unpredictable ancient pathogens released from the melting permafrost could wreak havoc on Earth.

An international team of scientists used digital simulations to assess risks posed by “time-traveling” pathogens, a term used to describe ancient microorganisms that reemerge in modern environments.

Experiments conducted by researchers saw digital replicas of ancient virus-like pathogens invade modern communities of bacteria-like hosts.

According to lead author Giovanni Strona from the European Commission Joint Research Center, the study found a “non-negligible” risk of ancient pathogens causing significant changes in the invaded communities.

“It identifies a novel, fundamental threat which is currently almost ignored in studies dealing with the effects of global change on biodiversity,” he said.

Seeking to bridge a “knowledge gap” partly resulting from the lack of real-life specimens needed for research, the team used artificial life simulation software called Avida to run experiments.

The findings, published in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS Computational Biology, showed that most invading pathogens had limited impact on their host communities.

However, 3% of ancient microbes survived and became dominant within these communities. Out of these, 1% yielded unpredictable results, with some causing up to a third of host species to die out. Others boosted diversity by up to 12%.

Researchers warned that the sheer number of microorganisms that could be reintroduced back into the wild makes potential outbreak events a “substantial hazard” despite what appears to be low figures cited in their findings.

Arctic warms four times faster than the rest of the world. Image by Shutterstock

Adding to the concern is the unpredictability of successful invasions even when biological traits and ecological structure of both the invader and the target community are well understood.

“This is not good news for the real world, as it complicates risk assessment and preparedness,” Strona said.

He noted: “When we fed data into machine learning algorithms, we were expecting to find a clear ‘recipe’ for invasion success, or in other words, the identikit of the perfect time-traveling invader. This was not the case.”

While further research and close monitoring of “time-traveling” microbes could help mitigate the effects of potential outbreaks, Strona said there might be only one sure-fire way to avert them.

“Our findings suggest that if the ice keeps melting, we should expect this to trigger important ecological changes – some of which might already be happening. Thus, the only practical way to reduce this risk is the usual one: cutting emissions,” he said.

A recent study published in Nature showed that the Arctic had warmed four times faster than the rest of the world over the past four decades.