700-Year-Old Viruses Found —in Frozen Caribou Poop

It seems the ice is remarkably good at preserving unsavory things
By Polly Davis Doig,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 28, 2014 4:41 PM CDT
700-Year-Old Viruses Found —in Frozen Caribou Poop
A bear and caribou trundle along the trail in this Aug. 14, 2014, file photo.   (AP Photo/Cal Woodward)

If trekking into the wilds of northern Canada, drilling samples out of the ice core, and analyzing caribou poop to find a pair of really old viruses sounds like your idea of a hot Friday night, well, we present you Eric Delwart. As NPR reports, the viral researcher did just that with 700-year-old caribou scat after it occurred to him that the ice "is nature's freezer, which should also contain organic remains." And given that animals of all kinds are "constantly shoving viruses down our throat ... if you look at poo samples from humans and from animals you will find a lot of viruses," he reasoned.

Delwart's theory panned out, and he found two previously undiscovered viruses. His results, published yesterday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that DNA in one of the viruses was in such great shape that it could be used to infect a plant. And while Delwart doesn't think either is dangerous, NPR offers up this cautionary coda: "As the North warms and ice melts, more caribou poo infected with ancient viruses will be finding its way into the modern ecosystem." (Speaking of things perhaps best left alone, a lab has revived history's deadliest flu virus.)

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