French scientists have recently discovered a 30,000-year-old giant virus kept frozen within the frigid landscapes of Siberia. The virus, which is one of four prehistoric microbes to be discovered in the past 15 years, will potentially be reanimated under safe conditions. In doing so, researchers hope to better understand pathogens of the past, a topic especially crucial now as many predict that the effects of climate change may unearth microbes previously thought to be eradicated.
Recording their research in the journal of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the French team is calling this virus strain, Mollivirus sibericum, the fourth of its kind discovered since 2003, but the second found by this team.
According to lead researcher Jean-Michele Claverie, the process of waking the virus will be closely monitored, and first tested to make sure it cannot infect animals or human beings. “A few viral particles that are still infections may be enough, in the presence of a vulnerable host, to revive potentially pathogenic viruses,” Claverie said.
The team is also fascinated to find that Mollivirus sibericum, nicknamed the “soft virus from Siberia,” qualifies as a “giant” virus. To be a “giant” virus, a specimen must be longer than half a micron, or a thousandth of a milliliter, and the newly discovered virus comes in at 0.6 microns.
Having found the prehistoric virus in the permafrost of Northeastern Russia, the researchers are worried the threat to these regions could mean the reappearance of some of history’s most threatening pathogens. According to Aljazeera America, the climate shift is causing Arctic and sub-Arctic regions to melt at twice the normal global average, meaning that any virus strains trapped within the permafrost may just show up again as icecaps reduce in size.
What’s more, industrial ventures also threaten to unveil some of the past’s viruses. The areas where researchers have been finding these giant microbes also happen to be regions where mineral resources, like oil will become increasingly more accessible as the ice melts.
“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 small pox that we thought were eradicated,” Claverie said.
For their new specimen, Claverie and his colleagues plan to implant the virus into a single-cell amoeba, which will act as a host. The reanimation process will occur within the controlled, safe conditions of a laboratory.
In 2013, Claverie’s team was also successful in reviving another giant virus. The microbe, which they identified as Pithovirus sibericum, was managed in Claverie’s lab at France’s National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), and found in the same location as their most recent specimen.
The researchers have also been intrigued to find that these giants are not only larger than common viruses today, but also significantly more genetically complex. For example,Mollivirus sibericum was found to have more than 500 genes, while the Pandoravirus, found in 2003, has 2,500. To put this into perspective, the Influenza A virus, better known as the Spanish flu, has only eight.
And though the most recent viruses discovered in Siberia’s permafrost date back to the Ice Age, research conducted in 2004 have also found more contemporary viruses in frozen environments. Successfully extracting the Spanish flu from the lung tissue of a woman buried in permafrost, U.S. researchers were able to reconstruct the virus’ eight genes. Though relatively unknown today, the Spanish flu caused an epidemic between 1918 and 1919 killing tens of millions of those who contracted it.
With the growing threat of superbugs, it is safe to say that the last thing the world needs is a virulent stream of “giant” viruses. But as to whether or not climate change will free these beasts from pre-human times, we will just have to wait and see.
Study: Legendre M, Claverie JM, Bruley C, et al. In-depth study of Mollivirus sibericum, a new 30,000-y-old giant virus infecting Acanthamoeba. PNAS. 2015.
This article was republished with permission from MedicalDaily.com.
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