Saturday, October 8, 2016

Pathogens & Permafrost

An almost 80 year old virus stuck in permafrost.  A graveyard on the Seward Peninsula in Alaska.  And a man known as the “Indiana Jones of the scientific set.”  What more does this story need but a dramatic subplot involving a dire need for viral samples to genetically map?  If this sounds like a tall tale, it certainly is.  But, oftentimes, the truth is stranger than fiction, as with this true story of Johan Hultin and his quest to retrieve samples of the virus that caused the Spanish influenza epidemic in 1918.

In 1951, inspired by the ability to study a bygone disease, Johan Hultin visited Brevig Mission, a small town in Alaska where 90% of the residents in 1918 were killed by the Spanish influenza and buried in a cemetery near town.  After unearthing some of these bodies from the permafrost, he collected lung samples and attempted to grow them in the lab.  But, unable to get the virus to replicate, he focused on other projects.  This all changed in 1997, when a molecular pathologist needed a sample of the infamous 1918 strain of influenza to genetically sequence.  Hultin remembered his expedition from 46 years earlier and revisited the graves, this time successfully (Fernandez).  Jeffery Taubenberger, the molecular pathologist, then used these viruses to discover that the strain was avian in origin (Rozell).

While this story has already been told on the New & Hot Blog (shoutout to Emma Rastatter and another unnamed author in 2014), I wanted to connect it up to climate change and a recent fatality due to anthrax that surfaced in Siberia.  In this case, a 12-year-old boy was exposed after an infected reindeer carcass that had long been frozen, defrosted, and its spores infected a live reindeer.  Many speculate that this will not be an isolated instance of old pathogens infecting the living due to reexposure after climate change.  And though anthrax is caused by bacteria, Siberia may also be home to viruses that lie just underneath the permafrost such as smallpox that could be exposed as global temperatures rise (Easley and Nguyen).

Easley, Siena, and Colleen Nguyen. "Anthrax Outbreak in Siberia as a Harbinger of the Unfreezing of Pathogens." The Disease Daily. HealthMap, 16 Aug. 2016. Web. 08 Oct. 2016.
Fernandez, Elizabeth. "The Virus Detective / Dr. John Hultin Has Found Evidence of the 1918 Flu Epidemic That Had Eluded Experts for Decades." SFGate. N.p., 17 Feb. 2002. Web. 08 Oct. 2016.
Rozell, Ned. "Villager's Remains Lead to 1918 Flu Breakthrough." Geophysical Institute. University of Alaska Fairbanks, 20 Nov. 2014. Web. 08 Oct. 2016.

- Devon Zander

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