Giant Virus Resurrected From Permafrost After 30,000 Years

Tuesday, 04 Mar 2014 02:09 PM

By Clyde Hughes

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Scientists have resurrected a mysterious giant virus that had been buried for 30,000 years in Siberian permafrost.

LiveScience.com reported that the study found numerous giant viruses as big as bacteria, but they did not have the cellular machinery and metabolism of those micro-organisms, and at least one family of the viruses probably grew out of single-celled parasites after losing essential genes.

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Experts say that the resurrected virus could only infect single-celled organisms, therefore it is not dangerous to humans. However, there is concern that other viruses that have laid dormant in melting ancient ice, such as Neanderthal viruses or smallpox, could affect humans.

"There is now a non-zero probability that the pathogenic microbes that bothered (ancient human populations) could be revived, and most likely infect us as well," Jean-Michel Claverie, a bioinformatics researcher at Aix-Marseille University in France and co-author of a study on the giant virus, told LiveScience. "Those pathogens could be banal bacteria (curable with antibiotics) or resistant bacteria or nasty viruses. If they have been extinct for a long time, then our immune system is no longer prepared to respond to them."

The science journal Nature reported Monday that Claverie and his wife, scientist Chantel Abergel, along with their team, were inspired by scientists in Russia who resurrected an ancient plant from fruits buried in 30,000-year-old Siberian permafrost two years ago. 

"If it was possible to revive a plant, I wondered if it was possible to revive a virus," Claverie said.

Claverie said that his team used permafrost samples from the Russian scientists and searched for the giant viruses by using amoebae as bait. Researchers found the Pithovirus, which appeared as a thick-walled oval resembling a Pandoravirus inside dying amoebae.

Neanderthals and humans occupied Siberia 28,000 years ago, and researchers worry that diseases from them could be revived, especially as global warming continues.

"If viable virions are still there, this is a good recipe for disaster," Claverie told LiveScience.com.

Curtis Suttle, a marine virologist at the University of British Columbia in Canada, said that humans inhale "thousands" of viruses daily, and it doesn't mean the resurrected ones could be harmful. 

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