Ancient Bacteria, Global Warming and Future Pandemics

Last week, scientists reported discovering living and fully viable bacteria in the ice of a Greenland glacier.

The bacteria, called Chryseobacterium Greenlandensis, is one of about 10 new species found in melting polar ice and glaciers, and has survived more than 120,000 years in extreme cold and pressure in an oxygen-reduced atmosphere with limited food supply.

Distantly related to bacteria found in marine mud, as well as the roots of some plants and fish, this new genus of Chryseobacterium demonstrates the persistence of life even under adverse conditions, and scientists are studying it to understand how cells survive by altering their biochemistry and physiology over generations.

The scientists are delighted with their find. I’m concerned. These emerging bacteria have not evolved alongside the current inhabitants of earth, including man. Consequently, none of earth’s species have developed any immunity to them. As polar ice and glaciers continue to melt, more and more bacteria will emerge. Some may be inimical to life as we know it, and all have shown themselves capable of surviving under conditions none of earth’s current inhabitants could tolerate.

To me, this sounds like a recipe for disaster, and I think I can safely anticipate the emergence, and spread, of a strain of bacteria that exhibits the potential to wipe out a species (say, fish) and then spreads transgenically to man. Interestingly enough, this article has been tagged elsewhere under Andromeda strain and whatcouldpossiblygowrong, indicating I’m not the only one anticipating doomsday scenarios from these new arrivals to the environment – arrivals which have spent the last 120 millenia (or as much as eight million years) evolving in a direction we can only call alien.

Currently, varieties of Chryseobacterium – a gram negative bacteria – have been implicated in such diseases or conditons as hepatitis and acute sepsis, infective endocarditis, septic arthritis, and chronic sclerosing osteomyelitis, this last treated with a third generation antibiotic, ciprofloxacin (a fluoroquinolone, or broad-spectrum antibiotic). Gram negative bacteria like cholera have caused epidemics in the past, and Chryseobacteria are the primary disease agents in nosocomial infections in hospitals and nursing homes, as well as among children with cystic fibrosis and people with chronic lung conditions like asthma, emphysema and COPD. They also cause meningitis (in newborns) and sepsis in burn victims.

Known Chryseobacterium strains are, for the most part, unfriendly to man. How much less friendly will they be having evolved separately from man? Add to that the increasing resistance of bacteria in general to third-generation antibiotics like the cephalosporins, fluoroquinolones and carbapenems, and this convergence – of bacteria evolved to survive everything, and increasing antibiotic resistance in “native” strains of bacteria – creates the potential for cross-genus contamination leading to epidemic (or even pandemic) diseases. We already know that GM micro-organisms are capable of cross-breeding in nature, and scientists have demonstrated that bacteria can join together and exchange DNA (a process known as conjugation), which changes the genotype of the bacteria.

As the earth warms – either due to man’s activities or some natural (possibly external) cycle – more bacteria will emerge from ice or thawing permafrost. In soils previously locked by permafrost, soil bacteria will increase their activity, releasing the trapped carbon into the atmosphere, leading to more warming and the release of even more bacteria, both native species and alien ones.

The “blowback” of this predicted runaway global warming may be more than rising oceans, erratic and dangerous weather patterns, and a rise in the lethality of existing diseases. It may lead to the emergence of entirely new diseases for which we have no weapons, and the sudden or gradual extinction of the single species held culpable in global warming. An end which, some would call, “Karmic retribution.”

This is doubly disconcerting as a similar threat was reported just this week in The Verge.

For those who would rather ignore these dire warnings, I would also like to remind the reading public that, quite recently, more degrees of MRSA (Methicillin resistant staphlococcus aureus) are being found than ever before, at exactly the same time that supplies of useful antibiotics are running low.

This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.” T.S. Eliot, The Hollow Men

(This blog originally ran in The Panelist in 2008)


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