Prehistoric 'Frankenviruses' Could Rise Again

Viruses, buried in permafrost, could be revived with climate change
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Sep 9, 2015 11:11 AM CDT
Meet the newest giant virus.   (J.M. Claverie/CNRS-AMU)

(Newser) – A 30,000-year-old "giant virus" could be brought back to life thanks to a surprise discovery 100 feet deep in Siberia's permafrost. The virus, Mollivirus sibericum or "soft virus from Siberia," qualifies as giant because it is 0.6 micrometers and can be seen under a regular microscope, reports Vice News. But why revive it? Well, the French team who discovered it hopes to study the virus, which dates to the last Ice Age and is incredibly complex genetically; it has 500 genes, while Influenza A, for instance, has just eight. Studying such a virus isn't without risk, though. "A few viral particles that are still infectious may be enough, in the presence of a vulnerable host, to revive potentially pathogenic viruses," a researcher tells AFP. That's why the team will first ensure the bug won't cause human or animal disease before placing it with a single-cell amoeba.

After introducing the virus to an amoeba host, researchers will move on to mice and then human cells. A little wary of such a revival? This is the fourth prehistoric virus discovered since 2003 and the second by the French team. They revived the giant virus Pithovirus sibericum after its discovery in 2013. Experts warn, however, that prehistoric viruses could eventually recover by themselves. Climate change is warming Arctic and sub-Arctic regions at twice the global rate, meaning mineral resources are likely to grow more accessible and permafrost layers may be "dug up and exposed to air," a researcher says. "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." (Click for more on giant viruses.)

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