What we talk about when we talk about war (V)

Syrian desert. Photo: Marija Miloradovic/TrekEarth

Syrian desert.
Photo: Marija Miloradovic/TrekEarth

 

Permafrost warms, glaciers recede and life that has been dormant is revived – and biodiversity surprises abound. A number of otherwise extinct mosses and lichens have been exposed by the retreat Ellesmere Island’s Teardrop Glacier.

A 30,000-year-old virus, benign but previously unknown, was found in ice cores pulled from  Siberian permafrost.

Some apprehension is understandable; not all giant viruses are benign.

Credit: Julia Bartoli & Chantal Abergel; Information Génomique et Structurale, CNRS-AMU

Credit: Julia Bartoli & Chantal Abergel; Information Génomique et Structurale, CNRS-AMU

But another powerful environmental force has revived a virus much smaller, more recent, and more lethal. War supports biodiversity of the worst kind.

The polio virus, all but eradicated, has been making a comeback in the Middle East due to the retreat of vaccinations during the four-year conflict. A 95% vaccination rate is considered sufficient to keep the virus from infecting populations. The rate of vaccination during the Syrian war was estimated at 68% in 2012, and is less now.

Twenty five cases of polio have been confirmed in Syria since October 2013. Another 84 cases of measles have been confirmed in the first week of 2014, according to the World Health Organization. And an estimated 500,000 Syrian children, many unvaccinated, are now living as refugees in neighbouring countries.  A wider spread of the disease is feared. Vaccination programs are underway in refuge camps.

Polio is caused by a human enterovirus called the poliovirus. There are three types; Type 2 has been eliminated, Types 1 and 3 still exist, with Type 1 being the most pervasive and dangerous. Source: GPEI site photo gallery

Polio is caused by a human enterovirus called the poliovirus. There are three types; Type 2 has been eliminated, Types 1 and 3 still exist, with Type 1 being the most pervasive and dangerous.
Source: GPEI site photo gallery

Human-caused climate change extends to areas long covered by glaciers; it will be interesting and hopefully not too frightening to see what kind of viral biodiversity rebounds from the ice.

In the case of polio, however, we had come so far in pushing it to the brink of extinction. Watching its return as a result of human negligence and war is one environmental development that is both a sign of the tenacity of the virus, and of our own disregard for the best of which we are capable.

Shaking the Tree

Tree of Life  Image: Tree of Life Web Project

Tree of Life
Image: Tree of Life Web Project

The current phylogenetic tree, which organizes the known types of life into groups that share certain characteristics, may have just gained an extra branch way down near the roots. There are three domains: Archaea, Bacteria, and Eukoryota.

While we are used to hearing about a new species of frog or beetle or plant being discovered, these are usually branches or even twigs far up the Eukaryotic line. And it’s accepted that only a fraction of bacteria, one of the three main branches, have been identified.

So it’s kind of major news that a family has been found that don’t fit anything yet known. French scientists at CNRS, the French national research agency, have found viruses that are massive (massive compared to other known viruses, that is). They are large enough to be seen with a regular light microscope, and have almost twice the number of genomes, a different  structure and different physical appearances from that of other known viruses.

Pandoraviruses have a much bigger genome, an atypical shape, and different genes from megaviruses (inset), the next largest viruses known to date. Credit: IGS – CNRS/AMU; IGS CNRS-AMU/Chantal Abergel Via Science

Pandoraviruses have a much bigger genome, an atypical shape, and different genes from megaviruses (inset), the next largest viruses known to date.
Credit: IGS – CNRS/AMU; IGS CNRS-AMU/Chantal Abergel Via Science

From the original paper: “Because more than 93% of Pandoraviruses genes resemble nothing known, their origin cannot be traced back to any known cellular lineage…The absence of Pandoravirus-like sequences from the rapidly growing environmental metagenomic databases suggests either that they are rare or that their ecological niche has never been prospected.”

I count it as a good day when a major assumption is expanded or upended by scientific research. I would welcome the Pandoravirus family to the Tree of Life, but congratulations are more appropriate in the other direction. Thank you, researchers, for alerting us to something that has been right under our collective noses.

More:

Science paperPandoraviruses: Amoeba Viruses with Genomes Up to 2.5 Mb Reaching That of Parasitic Eukaryotes by N. Philippe, M. Legendre, G. Doutre, Y. Couté, O. Poirot, M. Lescot, D. Arslan, V. Seltzer, L. Bertaux, C. Bruley, J. Garin, J-M. Claverie, C. Abergel

Science articleEver-Bigger Viruses Shake Tree of Life by Elizabeth Pennisi