Climate Changes Exposes Ancient, Giant Virus

Global warming is thawing Siberia's permafrost.

Global warming is thawing Siberia’s permafrost.

In his book Extreme Threats: Climate Change, author Don Nardo lays out a number of potentially calamitous consequences that might result from climate change. Heat waves, droughts, prolonged and devastating periods of freezing temperatures, increased numbers of natural disasters such as floods and hurricanes; the list goes on and on. But a new, particularly icky threat has recently come to life: gigantic, ancient viruses.

Earlier this month, scientists discovered a 30,000 year old giant virus buried some one hundred feet in Siberia’s frozen ground. Called Pithovirus sibericum, scientists believe the virus was sealed in the cold region’s permafrost (soil at or below a freezing temperature for more than two years). Indeed, many animals and organisms have been preserved for centuries in the frozen ground (some researchers have even tasted perfectly preserved wooly mammoth meat). But climate change and warming of the Siberian region have caused the layers of permafrost to decrease at steady rate, exposing many of these ancient lifeforms, including many viruses that been sealed away for thousands of years.

Pithovirus sibericum is one such virus, and it’s big. Literally. At just 1.5 micrometers, it may not sound large, but it’s about 1,000 times larger than an average virus (such as influenza); it also contains about 2,500 genes, while influenza has just thirteen. And research shows that the newly thawed virus has been revived and is growing and multiplying.

You can tell it's an old-timey virus from the push-broom mustache.


Fortunately, this particular virus strictly attacks single cell organisms, such as amoebas; it doesn’t attack more complex organisms like humans or animals. But, the researchers studying the giant virus worry that’s it just one of many frozen in the permafrost. The more that global warming thaws out the frozen ground, the more likely other ancient viruses will be found and potentially revived.

Admittedly, the chances of these viruses becoming a threat to humanity are low. But as one of the scientists working on the project says, “there’s always the first instance, right?”

Not too mention that earlier this year, scientists reconstructed the genetic code of a strain of the bubonic plague that wreaked havoc in the Roman Empire under Emperor Justinian; they were able to do so by extracting DNA from the teeth of two ancient bodies found by land developers in Germany. Scientists hope that studying the bacteria will give a greater understanding the plague’s evolutionary journey, providing insight into human history and the disease itself, which still affects some people today.

Still, ancient viruses and bacteria being extracted from frozen ground and preserved teeth bring to mind science fiction and apocalyptic scenarios. Of course, that kind of thing is just fiction . . .  anyway, now I’m off to move into a hermetically sealed biosphere and shower in Purell.

To learn more about the other dangers posed by climate change, as well as what we can do to slow it down, check out Extreme Threats: Climate Change by Don Nardo (ISBN# 978-1-59935119-3) from your local library or order it from Morgan Reynolds Publishing. For more about the Bubonic plague, influenza, and other diseases, please see Morgan Reynolds’ Diseases in History series.

-Josh Barrer

Associate Editor

Published in: on March 12, 2014 at 2:08 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Fighting the Flu and Other Diseases

A new flu vaccine, administered via a tiny needle.

A new flu vaccine, administered via a tiny needle.

As we near the fall, the weather cools and kids begin returning to school, and many people begin worrying about the flu and the spread of disease.

These days, people have more ways than ever to help protect themselves against the influenza virus. An article recently run by the Associated Press examines the number of different types of flu vaccine now available. There is a more potent vaccine that protects against multiple types of flu, and vaccinations made especially for people with allergies to eggs, or fear of needles. The flu, it seems, doesn’t stand much of a chance this year.

Of course, many people don’t have access to vaccinations, and as a result, as many as 500,000 people die from the flu yearly. And throughout history, the influenza virus has taken millions of lives.

A 3d model of the flu virus

A 3d model of the flu virus

Still, thanks to the dedication and efforts of scientists and doctors through history, we have multiple tools to battle influenza and its potentially devastating effects. Unfortunately, there are many other health threats still around.

Some bacteria, for example, grow resistant to antibiotics. Therefore, the infections and illnesses these bacteria cause are more difficult to fight, and kill an estimated 23,000 people a year.

Meanwhile, other diseases, such as SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) seem to frequently be making the news, cropping up in small pockets throughout the world and inflicting great damage on infected individuals.

There are unfortunately no easy answers on what can be done to prevent and fight these diseases, but plenty of people are doing everything they can. The BBC recently ran an article looking at the doctors and nurses who put themselves in great danger to stop the spread of

X-ray of the lungs of a person with SARS

X-ray of the lungs of a person with SARS

SARS. They didn’t do so for glory or fame, but because they believed it was their duty to do what they could to help the sick and prevent the sickness from spreading.

They are reminiscent of the the people who braved influenza infection during various outbreaks throughout history, or even the Late Middle Age physicians who ventured into plague houses, risking everything to protect people and gain just a bit more knowledge and understanding of a disease that was devastating humanity.  With time, thanks to the efforts of people like this, we may have someday have vaccines and other ways to protect against whatever diseases and bacteria prove to be a threat in the future.

To learn more about the history of the influenza virus, its impact on history, and people’s efforts to prevent and fight it, please check out Diseases in History: Flu by Kevin Cunningham (ISBN # 978-159935-105-6) from your local library or purchase it from Morgan Reynolds Publishing. The Diseases in History series also features books about the plague, HIV/AIDS, and malaria.

-Josh Barrer

Associate Editor

Published in: on September 18, 2013 at 1:43 pm  Leave a Comment  
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“Today malaria is considered a disease of the poor. . .”-Kevin Cunningham

This week, scientists have made history. Again.

The Times UK reported, “One of the world’s most deadly diseases could be brought under control, scientists said . . . as they hailed the first working vaccine against malaria.”

Kevin Cunningham, author of Diseases in History: Malaria (a Morgan Reynolds title), wrote, “Malaria has killed more human beings than any other disease. There are historians who say it has killed half the people who have ever lived.”

The most affected nations in the world are in Africa and Southeast Asia.

The vaccine will be administered to children in Africa, according to the Times. “Millions of children in Africa are likely to being receiving the jab within a few years after final-stage trials showed that it halved the number who got sick.”

Tsiri Agbenyega, the lead investigator or the trial, told the Times, “This is remarkable when you consider there has never been a successful vaccine against a human parasite.”

Cunningham wrote, “If the effort against malaria is going to succeed, it will have to be as relentless as malaria itself.”

The Times reports that this new vaccine is “far from 100 percent effective” but that it still “has the potential to save hundreds of thousands of lives.”

It may not be relentless, but this vaccine will give many a fighting chance at survival.

Adrianne Loggins
Associate Editor

For more information about malaria, check out Kevin Cunningham’s Diseases in History: Malaria (ISBN 9781599351032).

Published in: on October 21, 2011 at 3:08 pm  Leave a Comment  
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““No object, no event, no outcome or life circumstance can deliver real happiness to us. We have to make our own happiness—by working hard at activities that provide their own reward.” ― Jane McGonigal, Reality Is Broken

A team of online gamers has decoded the structure of a particular protein of a retrovirus, similar to HIV/AIDS, in three weeks using a video game as their platform toward discovery.  Scientists have been trying for ten years.

CBS News reported that University of Washington biochemistry professor David Baker’s “lab developed the game, called Foldit, about three years ago, believing that they could tap into the brain power that puzzle-loving humans pour into computer games….Foldit players use their intuition and 3-D problem-solving skills to figure out likely protein structures. Teams earn points by finding the most chemically stable shapes.”

Kevin Cunningham, author of Morgan Reynolds’s Diseases in History: HIV/AIDS, wrote about the structure of a HIV molecule, “A particle of HIV resembles a sphere studded with plunger-shaped proteins. Inside the particle, a cylindrical core holds two strands of ribonucleic acid, or RNA, coded with the virus’s nine genes. Copies of other proteins important to the virus also float around the core.”

The protein the Foldit players decoded is one that retroviruses use to multiply, called a protease. Cunningham explained, ” When buds of HIV began to break out of an infected cell, an enzyme known as the protease splits the virus’s proteins into various parts. This process is necessary for HIV to mature into an active agent and move on to infect new cells.” The knowledge of how this protein is structured may lead to the development of better AIDS drugs.

“One of the most terrifying aspects of the early AIDS epidemic was the fact that nothing worked against the disease,” Cunningham wrote. Now, that fact has driven scientists and civilians alike to search for answers to the unknowns of this disease.

Adrianne Loggins
Associate Editor

For more information about HIV/AIDS, see Cunningham’s Diseases in History: HIV/AIDS, a Morgan Reynolds title. (ISBN 9781599351049)

Published in: on September 22, 2011 at 3:08 pm  Leave a Comment  
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“It’s figuring us out faster than we’re figuring it out.” -From the movie Contagion

This negative stained transmission electron micrograph (TEM) shows recreated 1918 influenza virions. Courtesy of the CDC.


It’s flu season, and one thing that will motivate you to get a flu shot this year is going to see the #1 box office ranking movie Contagion.

The movie opened on September 9, 2011, and over the weekend made over 23 million dollars. The plot of the movie is about the threat of a fast-moving influenza virus with no known cure on the human population.

That’s exactly what happened in 1918 when the Spanish flu ransacked the globe.  Kevin Cunningham, author of Morgan Reynolds’s Diseases in History: Influenza, wrote that the flu “blazed for eighteen months and killed between 40 and 100 million human beings. Then it vanished.”

Healthy young adults became deathly ill in a matter of hours. A victim’s ears and lips turned blue.  Soon the skin turned the same color. As the disease advanced, the fingertips and feet turned black. Blood streamed from the nose and gums, and was coughed up in thick sputum that soaked the victim’s pillows and bed sheets. The lungs were virtually turned into pulp by the virus and the immune system’s attempt to kill it…. Sometimes it killed in weeks, sometimes less than twenty-four hours.

The most frightening part of Contagion is that an epidemic like the one in 1918 could happen again. Cunningham wrote:

Humanity has conquered or curbed many diseases in the last century. Influenza remains undefeated. It is an astonishingly complex adversary–wildly contagious, ever-changing and secretive, at times only aggravating, at other times a ferocious killer.

At the end of August, the New York Times reported that the United Nations have released a warning that H5N1, commonly known as bird flu, may be making a come back in Southeast Asia, and that the virus “poses unpredictable risks to human health.”

So go see Contagion and then go get a flu shot.

Adrianne Loggins
Associate Editor

For more information on Influenza and other dangerous diseases, check out the Morgan Reynolds series Diseases in History by Kevin Cunningham:

Diseases in History: Influenza (ISBN 9781599351056)

Diseases in History: Plague (ISBN9781599351025)

Diseases in History: HIV/AIDS (ISBN9781599351049)

Diseases in History: Malaria (ISBN 9781599351032)

Published in: on September 16, 2011 at 1:23 pm  Leave a Comment  
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There is hope.

We are continuing with the disease trend from last week’s post, but instead of discussing bad news (E. Coli outbreak in Europe), we have good news.

In the past week, word of one British man’s victory over HIV has spread like wildfire. Timothy Ray Brown was a leukemia patient who was also HIV positive in 2007, when he underwent surgery for a bone marrow transplant. Mr. Brown received his bone marrow transplant from a donor who was immune to HIV. According to Yahoo! News, and estimated 1 percent of Caucasians are immune to the disease. After is surgery, the article reports, ” His HIV went away.” His symptoms disappeared, the virus has stopped replicating, and he does not take any medicine for the illness.

News of this medical breakthrough is fantastic, and comes almost thirty years to the day when the Centers for Disease Control issued its first report on the emerging AIDS epidemic. Kevin Cunningham, author of Morgan Reynolds’ Diseases in History: HIV/AIDS, writes, “One of the most terrifying aspects of the early AIDS epidemic was the fact that nothing worked against the disease. No medicine stopped it, certainly none cured it, and no vaccine prevented it.

“The epidemics and the pandemic that followed [HIV/AIDS] have taught us a lot–about ourselves and the world and our vulnerability to new and undiscovered viruses,” Cunningham adds. “Where HIV leads, and whether its lessons help us with the next disease to appear, remains to be seen.”

Brown’s case gives millions of HIV positive people reason to hope. However, bone marrow transplants are extremely dangerous and often deadly. It is unrealistic to assume that the 30 + million of HIV positive patients worldwide could receive this extreme treatment. But its discovery is a step in the right direction.

Adrianne Loggins
Associate Editor

For more information on HIV/AIDS and the history of the disease, check out Diseases in History: HIV/AIDS by Kevin Cunningham (ISBN 978-1-59935-104-9)

Published in: on June 7, 2011 at 1:36 pm  Leave a Comment  
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“No infectious disease rains down on humanity out of nowhere.”-Kevin Cunningham

The wonderful thing about being an evolved species is that we are capable of developing ways to protect ourselves from disease. Unluckily for us, however, viruses and bacteria can also evolve–or rather, mutate, into new and deadlier forms of disease.

That is exactly what has happened with the most recent outbreak of E. coli. This deadly strain of E. coli has already taken sixteen victims in Germany, and several hundred people have been infected.

Kevin Cunningham, author of the Morgan Reynolds series Diseases in History, writes, “All [diseases] have been (and are) assisted by human behavior…. Humans have always created conditions agreeable to pathogens…”

These diseases, in turn, not only make us sick, they also turn whole economies upside down. In the case of malaria, for example, Cunningham writes, “The effects reverberate across the entire economy… malaria keeps workers from working. A bout of malaria costs a worker between four and six days on the job….a case of fever at harvest time means less food gets picked. That can lead to nutritional problems or starvation, not just for the farmer but for his extended family.”

Some agricultural workers in Spain have had to stop working as a result of the panic the E. coli outbreak has caused in Europe. People are scared to purchase produce, making demand for their summer cucumbers pretty much zilch, and thus workers have nothing to pick.

We will always be plagued (no pun intended) by diseases. It’s a fact of life. Until we find an omnipotent vaccine that eradicates illness of all kinds, we have to assume that nature will create obstacles such as new strains of E. coli, malaria, and influenza, to name a few.

Some facts about some of the world’s most infectious diseases:

-Since 1981, HIV has infected roughly 65 million people around the world.

-No one actually dies from AIDS, rather from infections or lesser viruses that wreak havoc on the immune system.

-Between 1,000-3,000 cases of bubonic plague are confirmed each year.

-Malaria has been around since prehistory.

-The most common victims of malaria are pregnant African women and African children under the age of five.

-Around 1 million people die from influenza annually.

-Scientists have predicted a severe influenza pandemic will strike in the future, and although they do not know when or what exactly will happen to those infected, they predict that as many as 207,000 could die in the U.S.

Adrianne Loggins
Associate Editor


For more information about Malaria, HIV, Influenza, and Plague, check out the Diseases in History series:

Diseases in History: Malaria (ISBN 978-1-59935-103-2)

Diseases in History: HIV/AIDS (ISBN 978-1-59935-104-9)

Diseases in History: Flu (ISBN 978-1-59935-105-6)

Diseases in History: Plague (ISBN 978-1-59935-102-5)

Published in: on June 3, 2011 at 1:09 pm  Leave a Comment  
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