Time-travelling pathogens and their risk to ecological communities

Giovanni Strona, Corey Bradshaw, Pedro Cardoso, Nicholas Gotelli, Frédéric Guillaume, Federica Manca, Ville Mustonen, Luis Zaman

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Permafrost thawing and the potential ‘lab leak’ of ancient microorganisms generate risks of biological invasions for today’s ecological communities, including threats to human health via exposure to emergent pathogens. Whether and how such ‘time-travelling’ invaders could establish in modern communities is unclear, and existing data are too scarce to test hypotheses. To quantify the risks of time-travelling invasions, we isolated digital virus-like pathogens from the past records of coevolved artificial life communities and studied their simulated invasion into future states of the community. We then investigated how invasions affected diversity of the free-living bacteria-like organisms (i.e., host) in recipient communities compared to controls where no invasion occurred (and control invasions of contemporary pathogens). Invading pathogens could often survive and continue evolving, and in a few cases (3.1%) became exceptionally dominant in the invaded community. Even so, invaders often had negligible effects on the invaded community composition; however, in a few, highly unpredictable cases (1.1%), invaders precipitated either substantial losses (up to -32%) or gains (up to +12%) in the total richness of free-living species compared to controls. Given the sheer abundance of ancient microorganisms regularly released into modern communities, such a low probability of outbreak events still presents substantial risks. Our findings therefore suggest that unpredictable threats so far confined to science fiction and conjecture could in fact be powerful drivers of ecological change.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere1011268
Number of pages24
JournalPLOS Computational Biology
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - 27 Jul 2023


  • Pathogens
  • Ecological Communities
  • Time-Travelling


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