In the first season of The X-Files, there’s a terrifying episode that takes place in the depths of Alaska on a research team vessel. A group of geophysicists perform a mass murder-suicide and Mulder and Scully, whose job is to solve unsolvable mysteries, head off to investigate.
SPOILER ALERT: When they get to the research vessel, there’s an overly aggressive dog that tries to bite everyone.
Turns out, it was infected by a 250,000-year-old microbe that had been lodged in an ice core. The ice core was slightly thawed for scientific investigation by that murder-suicided research team, so the parasite woke up and attached itself to the brain (specifically the hypothalamus, associated with aggressive behavior).
When infected, the people got very aggressive and very sick, leading to death. Several theories are thrown around by Scully & Mulder’s team, and it’s revealed that the parasite is unlike any known extant or extinct organism. Mulder believes the parasite is extraterrestrial (because of course he does), while Scully is mainly concerned about it spreading to the population (because of course she is).
In 1969, Michael Crichton published The Andromeda Strain, a scientific thriller about an extraterrestrial microbe that enters Earth, kills an entire town, and rapidly evolves to be even more deadly. And again from The X-Files, there’s a recurring, infectious alien life form that dwells deep in petroleum reserves. As the need for oil increases, and also just randomly, more cases of infection from “black oil” arise.
The life forms can infect and control their hosts completely, because they’re SENTIENT.
The threat of underground, frozen, or alien microbes awakening or attacking during our lifetime is clearly a predominant plot for science fiction. Because it’s seriously terrifying. What the heck is lurking underground? What is dormant? What will we discover as we learn more about and use more of our universe?
WELLLLL fortunately for us, we can start answering these questions, because this isn’t science fiction anymore. We’ve been waking up dormant microbes (or tiny organisms) for a while, specifically because of climate change. The fact that the ice caps are melting is already scary, but add in that we’re releasing long-dormant diseases in the process and we’re way screwed.
Uh, so what’s happening?
In the fall of 2016, a young boy that lived in the Arctic tundra died of anthrax. About 20 other people were hospitalized from infection. Even thousands of reindeer got infected. The theory is that a frozen reindeer, that had been infected with anthrax over 75 years ago, thawed and re-released anthrax into the soil, water, and food supply. This spread to the local human population, and anthrax infection landed people in the hospital or dead.
Scientists have been studying the Arctic tundra for decades, and have been uncovering a lot of potentially deadly microbes in the permafrost, or frozen soil. Since permafrost is melting at an alarmingly fast rate from climate change, scientists worry that these microbes will awaken (just like the anthrax) and infect populations.
What’s even more worrisome is if microbes that have been dormant for thousands of years (or even millions!) wake up… microbes that we haven’t studied, aren’t familiar with, and don’t have treatments for.
Cool. Are we all going to die?
Okay so, most scientists aren’t particularly worried about those microbes that are millions of years old thawing out and attacking us. But they’ve definitely found very large microbes lurking in the frozen ground that are super deadly… to amoeba. They’ve even found old microbes that have waaaaay more genes than the bacteria and viruses do today. The reason they’re able to thrive is because permafrost is the perfect resting spot for some bacteria and viruses — super cold, not a lot of oxygen, and dark.
Scientists believe the most likely outcome is that grave sites from eras of plague and smallpox will thaw out and those microbes will be re-released into the population. We’re talking diseases that we’ve ‘eradicated’, that we don’t worry about anymore, but that killed MILLIONS of people.
And I don’t care what these optimistic (or as they claim, ‘realistic’) scientists think. Diseases and humans have coevolved… we are living amongst so many different types of bacteria and viruses, most of which we’re able to resist or use to our advantage, because human evolution has taken them into account. But what if some random, unknown-to-humans-ever virus wakes up, attaches itself to my hypothalamus, spreads, and creates a massive human population of overly aggressive people that are hell-bent on destroying each other? WHAT IF IT ALREADY HAS?
I mean, scientists have already awoken bacteria, roughly 8 million years old, from a frozen Antarctic pond.
It’s important to note that we do learn a lot from these old microbes that may be useful in case one turns out being deadly and easily infectious. It’s also important to note that viruses are terrifying and can evolve way too fast.
Then go hide for the rest of your lives in your underground bunker where you can watch all of The X-Files and indulge in science fiction. This is truly the only way to prepare for the inevitable extraterrestrial pandemic that will kill us all.