Even adaptable viruses have trouble surviving erratic temperatures

Viruses such as those that cause the common cold are some of the most hardy and adaptable things on earth, but even they have trouble surviving the unpredictable and sudden temperature changes predicted by climate change models.

A simple RNA virus subjected to random temperature fluctuations within a window of just 8 degree C showed inability to adapt to this environmental change, according to research by Yale University and University of Florida scientists published Jan. 31 in the journal Evolution.

“They just seem to shut down. Even the champions of adaptive change have a fitness problem,” said Paul Turner, chair of Yale’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and senior author of the study.

And that is bad news for species like polar bears and cheetahs that are not quite so evolutionarily nimble, note the researchers.

There have been few studies on how populations might respond to the sudden and random temperature shifts predicted by current climate change models. Viruses are usually quick to adapt to environmental change, as the emergence of new strains of influenza in the face of increased human immunity attest. So Turner and his fellow researchers assumed that viruses would have little problem in the face of rapid temperature fluctuations. They were wrong.

“In historic examples, temperature changes were gradual, and organisms had time to adapt,” Turner said. “We are shifting into a new period in which extreme changes will occur unpredictably in a short period of time.”

“I think it is reasonable to be very worried about the ability of organisms to adapt to this form of climate change,” he said.

Barry Alto of the University of Florida is first author of the paper. Brian R. Wasik and Nadya M. Morales of Yale are co-authors.

The work was funded by the National Science Foundation, Yale Institute for Biospheric Studies, Illinois Natural History Survey, and University of Florida.