The world’s oldest dormant, frozen virus has been revived in a French laboratory, prompting many to express concerns about the risks of bringing ancient microbes back to life. The virus was removed from the permafrost of Siberia in far eastern Russia and is 48,500 years old, providing evidence that viruses are very hardy and able to survive indefinitely when preserved in a frozen state.
Siberian perpetual thaw in virus-ridden Pandora’s box
This particular virus is actually one of nine different viruses that have been resuscitated from Siberian permafrost samples in recent years. This includes seven viruses resuscitated in this new study, and two other viruses about 30,000 years old that the same team of researchers brought back from other samples taken in 2013. The youngest of these viruses was frozen 27,000 years ago.
As reported in the non-peer-reviewed journal bioRxivthe 48,500-year-old virus is named after Pandora Yedoma , a reference to Pandora’s Box. The virus was found in a sample of permafrost taken from 52 feet (16 meters) below the bottom of a lake in Yukichi Alas in the Russian Republic of Yakutia.
The first-ever Pandora virus was one of two viruses found in 2013, although this virus was of a completely different type. “48,500 years is a world record,” said Jean-Michel Claverie, a virologist at Aix-Marseille University in France and lead author of the virological study on permafrost. new world .
In addition to its age, the other remarkable characteristic of this Pandora virus is its size. It is classified as a type of giant virus, Pandora Yedoma It is approximately 1 µm long and 0.5 µm wide. This means that they can be examined directly under a microscope. It contains approximately 2,500 genes, in contrast to modern, small viruses that infect humans, which have no more than 10 to 20 genes.
Climate change and the resulting thawing of permafrost could release masses of new Siberian viruses into the atmosphere. ( Andrei Mikhailov / Adobe Stock)
Climate change and the risk of permafrost viral release
Given the alarming coronavirus pandemic the world has just experienced, it may seem alarming that these scientists are purposefully resurrecting long-lost viruses previously hidden in the frozen wastelands of Siberia. But they say this research is needed to assess the risks associated with climate change.
“A quarter of the northern hemisphere is under permanently frozen ground, referred to as permafrost,” they wrote in their newly published paper. As the permafrost thaws, organic matter that has been frozen for up to a million years is vanishing. One effect of this is the release of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, which amplifies the greenhouse effect.
The other is that “part of this organic matter also consists of revived cellular microbes (prokaryotes, single-celled eukaryotes) as well as viruses that have lain dormant since prehistoric times,” the authors explain in bioRxiv. Only by extracting viruses from permafrost samples and reviving them under controlled conditions, scientists claim, will it be possible to assess the nature of the threat they might pose to human health and safety in a warmer, permafrost-free future.
With permafrost covering more than a quarter of the total land area in the Northern Hemisphere, this isn’t an empty concern. The viral load currently trapped in a permanently frozen Earth is undoubtedly huge, and if it were all released over the course of two decades, it could cause an avalanche of new viral infections in a variety of host species.
None of these victims would be immune from the influence of viral agents that have been out of circulation for tens of thousands of years. Immune systems will eventually adapt, but it may be too late to prevent a catastrophic loss of life that crosses the spectrum of microbial, plant, and animal life.
The 48,500-year-old Siberian virus is a Pandora virus that infects single-celled organisms known as amoebas. (Clavery et al. bioRxiv)
Immortal viruses may soon return in astonishing, unimaginable quantities
Concerns about melting permafrost aren’t just theoretical. The frozen ground has already begun to thaw in some areas, and this has allowed scientists to recover well-preserved frozen specimens of animals that lived during the Paleolithic period.
In recent years, remains of the woolly rhino that went extinct 14,000 years ago have been found, and in one case scientists recovered a wolf’s head that was 40,000 years old and was in almost pristine condition. Woolly mammoth remains proved easy to find in freshly thawed soil, so much so that a black market industry sprang up in which mammoth tusks removed from unearthed giant skeletons were illegally sold to ivory traders.
What worries scientists about this evolution is that powerful infectious agents may be lurking within the well-preserved remains of ancient animals. It is noteworthy that the 27,000-year-old virus found in this new study was not removed from a lake bottom sample, but was instead extracted from frozen mammoth feces taken from a different permafrost core.
Needless to say, ancient viruses from thawed animal hosts are more likely to evolve into something that threatens humans than a virus that specifically attacks microbes like amoebas.
Winter landscape and frozen lake in Yakutia, Siberia. ( Tatyana Jasic / Adobe Stock)
The hidden danger of ancient bacteria and viruses in thawing permafrost
In their research paper, Professor Claverie and colleagues stress how dangerous ancient bacteria and viruses can be to current life forms of all kinds. Even if it has been frozen in levels deeper than the permafrost for millions of years, it may become active again if the permafrost disappears.
Compared to recent outbreaks of viruses, French scientists wrote that “the situation will be more catastrophic in the case of plant, animal or human diseases caused by the revival of an unknown ancient virus”. “As has been well documented by recent (and ongoing) epidemics, every new virus, even of well-known families, almost always requires the development of very specific medical responses, such as new antivirals or vaccines.”
Arctic regions of the planet are largely devoid of permanent human settlers. But the researchers point out that more people are visiting the colder regions of the planet than ever before, mainly to harvest valuable resources such as oil, gold and diamonds that are found in abundance in these previously unexplored regions. In strip mining operations, the top layers of permafrost are actually shredded on purpose, which means exposure to viruses during these operations may be unavoidable.
The scientists concluded, “How long these viruses can remain infectious once exposed to external conditions (UV light, oxygen, heat), and how likely they are to encounter and infect a suitable host in this period is still impossible to estimate.” “But the risk is bound to increase in the context of global warming when the thawing of permafrost continues to accelerate, and more people will live in the Arctic in the wake of industrial projects.”
Other scientists have warned of the dangers of viruses spreading in the Arctic through melting glaciers, another possible side effect of global warming. This could expose animals and people to rivers flowing from glacial meltwater that could carry pathogens to new areas to the south.
It remains to be seen if any of these worst-case scenarios will come to fruition. But even a small amount of melt, no matter what the cause, can be enough to release some potentially dangerous viral agents into the global environment, where billions of vulnerable people live.
Top image: microbial colony, representative image. source: Oh my / Adobe Stock
By Nathan Valdi
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