Top image: Colony of microbes, representational image. Source: iarhei / Adobe Stock

What could go wrong?! A 48,500-year-old Siberian virus is resurrected

The oldest known frozen, dormant virus in the world has been revived in a French lab, leading many to worry about the dangers of bringing ancient microbes to life. The virus was pulled from Siberian permafrost in far eastern Russia and is 48,500 years old, proving that viruses are incredibly resilient and able to survive indefinitely when kept frozen.

Melting Siberian permafrost into a virus-filled Pandora’s box

This particular virus is actually one of nine different virus types that have been resurrected from Siberian permafrost samples in recent years. This includes seven viruses resurrected for this new study and two other viruses around 30,000 years old brought back to life by the same team of researchers from other samples collected in 2013. The youngest of these viruses was frozen there 27,000 years ago.

As reported in the non-peer-reviewed journal bioRxivthe 48,500-year-old virus has been named Yedom from Pandoravirus , in reference to Pandora’s box. The virus was found in a permafrost sample taken 52 feet (16 m) below the bottom of a lake in Yukechi Alas in the Russian Republic of Yakutia.

The very first pandoravirus was one of two viruses discovered in 2013, although this one is of a completely different type. “48,500 years is a world record,” said Jean-Michel Claverie, a virologist at the University of Aix-Marseille in France and lead author of the viral permafrost study. new scientist .

Besides its age, the other remarkable characteristic of this pandoravirus is its size. Classified as a type of giant virus, Yedom from Pandoravirus measures approximately one micrometer long and 0.5 micrometers wide. This means that they can be examined directly under a microscope. It contains about 2,500 genes, unlike the tiny modern viruses that infect humans which have no more than 10-20 genes.

Climate change and the resulting permafrost thaw could release a mass of new Siberian viruses into the atmosphere.  (Андрей Михайлов / Adobe Stock)

Climate change and the resulting permafrost thaw could release a mass of new Siberian viruses into the atmosphere. ( Andrei Mikhailov /Adobe Stock)

Climate change and the threat of viral release from permafrost

Given the disturbing coronavirus pandemic the world has just been through, it might seem alarming that these scientists are intentionally resurrecting long-lost viruses previously hidden in the frozen wastelands of Siberia. But they say this research is needed to assess the dangers associated with climate change.

“A quarter of the northern hemisphere lies under permanently frozen ground, called permafrost,” they wrote in their recently published paper. As permafrost thaws, organic matter that has been frozen for a million years is thawing. One of the effects of this is the release of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, amplifying the greenhouse effect.

The other is that “part of this organic matter also consists of resurrected cellular microbes (prokaryotes, unicellular eukaryotes) as well as viruses that have remained dormant since prehistoric times”, explain the authors in bioRxiv. Only by extracting viruses from permafrost samples and reviving them under controlled conditions, scientists say, will it be possible to assess the nature of the threat they might pose to health. and human security in a warmer, permafrost-free future.

Given that permafrost covers more than a quarter of all land territory in the northern hemisphere, this is not an unnecessary concern. The viral load currently locked in permanently frozen ground is undoubtedly massive, and if fully released within a few decades could eventually trigger an avalanche of new viral infections in a variety of host species.

None of these victims would be immune to the impact of viral agents that had been out of circulation for tens of thousands of years. Immune systems would eventually adapt, but that might come too late to prevent catastrophic loss of life that crosses the spectrums of microbial, plant, and animal life.

The 48,500-year-old Siberian virus is a pandoravirus, which infects single-celled organisms called amoebas.  (Claverie

The 48,500-year-old Siberian virus is a pandoravirus, which infects single-celled organisms called amoebas. (Claverie et. al / bioRxiv)

Immortal viruses could soon return, in quantities too astonishing to imagine

Concerns about melting permafrost are not just theoretical. The once-frozen ground has already begun to thaw in some areas, allowing scientists to recover frozen, well-preserved specimens of animals that lived during the Paleolithic period.

In recent years, the remains of woolly rhinos that went extinct 14,000 years ago have been discovered, and in one case scientists recovered a 40,000-year-old wolf head that was in near-pristine condition. Woolly mammoth remains have proven to be particularly easy to find in freshly thawed ground, so much so that a black market industry has sprung up in which mammoth tusks removed from illegally dug up mammoth skeletons are sold to merchants. ivory.

What worries scientists about this development is that powerful infectious agents could be lurking dormant inside these well-preserved ancient animal remains. Of note, the 27,000-year-old virus found in this new study was not removed from the lake bottom sample, but rather was extracted from frozen mammoth feces taken from another permafrost core. .

Needless to say, ancient viruses released from thawed animal hosts would be more likely to evolve into something threatening to humans than a virus that specifically attacks microbes like the amoeba.

Winter landscape and frozen lake in Yakutia, Siberia.  (Tatiana Gasich/Adobe Stock)

Winter landscape and frozen lake in Yakutia, Siberia. ( Tatiana Gasic /Adobe Stock)

The Hidden Danger of Ancient Bacteria and Viruses in Thawing Permafrost

In their research paper, Professor Claverie and his colleagues highlighted how dangerous ancient bacteria and viruses could be to current life forms of all types. Even though they are frozen in deeper levels of permafrost for millions of years, they could become active again if the permafrost disappears.

Compared to modern virus epidemics, “the situation would be much more dire in the case of plant, animal or human diseases caused by the resurgence of an old, unknown virus,” the French scientists wrote. “As unfortunately well documented by recent (and ongoing) pandemics, each new virus, even linked to known families, almost always requires the development of very specific medical responses, such as new antivirals or vaccines.”

The Arctic regions of the planet are largely free of permanent human settlers. But researchers point out that more people are visiting the coldest regions of the planet than ever before, primarily to harvest valuable resources like oil, gold and diamonds that are found in abundance in these previously underexplored areas. In surface mining operations, the upper layers of permafrost are actually intentionally stripped away, which means viral exposures during these operations may be unavoidable.

“How long these viruses might remain infectious once exposed to outdoor conditions (UV light, oxygen, heat), and the likelihood that they will encounter and infect a suitable host in the meantime, is still impossible to estimate,” they said. concluded the scientists. “But the risk is set to increase in the context of global warming as permafrost melting continues to accelerate and more people populate the Arctic as a result of industrial ventures.”

Other scientists have warned of the dangers of viruses being released into the Arctic by melting glaciers, which is another possible side effect of global warming. This could expose animals and humans to rivers of glacial meltwater that could carry pathogens to new areas further south.

Whether any of these worst-case scenarios will materialize remains to be seen. But even a small amount of melting, whatever the cause, could be enough to release potentially dangerous viral agents into the global environment, where billions of vulnerable people live.

Top image: Colony of microbes, representative image. Source: iarhei /Adobe Stock

By Nathan Falde

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