A “giant virus” that is 30,000 years old has been discovered in the frozen wastelands of Siberia and now scientists want to bring it back to life. The prehistoric virus has been named Mollivirus sibericum and scientists are now warning that if the permafrost retreats enough viruses like this one, it could get a chance to spread.
The virus may be woken up if scientists can confirm that it would pose no risks to any living forms. The researchers are hoping that by doing this they can learn more about ancient dormant viruses, in case any get a chance to spread naturally.
The study which was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) journal says: “The fact that two different viruses retain their infectivity in pre-historical permafrost layers should be of concern in a context of global warming, ‘Giant viruses’ diversity remains to be fully explored.”
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The team which was led by Jean-Michel Claverie and Chantal Abergel of Aix-Marseille University in Marseille, France, had also made the discovery of a previously unknown virus, which has been called Pithovirus sibericum, making the recent discovery the second for them and the forth pre-historic virus found since 2003.
The Mollivirus sibericum has been classified as a “giant” virus as it is visible by light microscopy. According to the study, the virus has a complex genetic structure which has more than 500 genes; for a comparison the influenza virus has 8 genes. It was found 98ft (30m) below the surface of a late Pleistocene sediment in north-east Russia.
Claverie said: “A few viral particles that are still infectious may be enough, in the presence of a vulnerable host, to revive potentially pathogenic viruses.”
According to National Geographic, even after being embedded in ancient permafrost for more than 30,000 years, when Claverie and Abergel exposed Pithovirus sibericum to amoebas they found the virus was still alive and had quickly infected the host cell.
“We use amoeba on purpose as a safe bait for capturing viruses. We then immediately verify that they are not able to infect animal/human cells,” stressed the researchers.
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Claverie who is an evolutionary biologist and co-author of the study, told AFP: “the permafrost had come from land that has valuable mineral resources and that exploration of this site and others like it would continue as the ice melts and that could disturb any undiscovered pathogens.”
Claverie said to AFP: “If we are not careful, and we industrialize these areas without putting safeguards in place, we run the risk of one day waking up viruses such as smallpox that we thought were eradicated.”
Edward Mocarski, who is a professor of microbiology at Emory University, said to National Geographic that the risk of a virus being released in this way and being pathogenic to humans was very small.
“The idea would make a great movie but is extremely unlikely unless the virus came from a frozen human being who possibly died from a virus that is no longer in circulation,” said Mocarski wrote in an email to National Geographic.
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Claverie and Abergel have said that it doesn’t matter if it’s likely or not, the scenario still remains feasible. Their study shows that large DNA viruses can still remain infectious for very long time.
“The fact that we might catch a viral infection from a long-extinct Neanderthal individual is a good demonstration that the notion that a virus could be ‘eradicated’ from the planet is plain wrong and gives us a false sense of security. At least a stock of vaccine should be kept, just in case,” said the lead authors Claverie and Abergel.