Giant, 30,000-Year-Old Virus Unearthed — Is An Epidemic Hiding In Arctic Permafrost?

It sounds like the premise of a post-apocalyptic TV series: careless oil drilling unleashes an ancient virus sleeping in Arctic ice, starting a global epidemic. The new discovery of a 30,000-year-old virus in Siberia won’t herald such destruction, but scientists are more worried about what they haven’t found yet.

The 30,000-year-old Mollivirus sibericum doesn’t pose a threat to humans, assured co-author of a study on the discovery, Chantal Abergel. Back in the late Stone Age, it was more dangerous to single-celled amoebas, Live Science reported.

After extracting it from a core sample taken from Siberian permafrost, scientists treated the virus with kid gloves as they examined its structure and behavior. Toying with a 30,000-year-old virus seems a little dangerous, but the organism could help us understand how life began on Earth.

And so far, Mollivirus sibericum isn’t about to destroy that life, professor Jean-Michel Claverie — who worked on it — told CNN.

“We’re not stupid enough to revive a virus that may pose a threat to human health.”

Claverie said he was inspired to probe the permafrost after learning about scientists who grew plants from seeds buried for 30,000 years. He wondered what else they might find. The answer: a virus, 98 feet deep in the permafrost.

Though not deadly, Mollivirus sibericum is making scientific breakthroughs: a “giant virus,” it’s the member of a new viral family, of which there are four. It’s giant because it can be seen under a light microscope and contains lots of genes; the discovery is telling science that viruses are far more diverse than previously believed.

“We do think that these giant viruses will help us understand how life appeared on Earth,” Abergel said. “We think there are so many genes which are unique to those genomes, and there are many things to learn from the study of those genes.”

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Mollivirus has the potential to be deadly, though. Small amounts of the virus will kill an amoeba (one that causes contact lens infections and could be used to combat them, the Siberian Times added), meaning “only a handful of particles might be sufficient enough to start an epidemic,” Claverie noted.

Fortunately, the 30,000-year-old virus is being kept in a safe place.

But that doesn’t keep other unknown viruses from being unleashed. Global warming is making it easier for miners and oil drillers to penetrate Arctic sea ice that was once inaccessible, and if scientists have already found one virus, that could mean more are hiding.

Buried deep below ground, only human activity could wake them up. Many companies are already headed to those areas, looking for gold and tungsten in northern Siberia. The permafrost they’re excavating has been undisturbed for 30,000 years or more.

But so far, no one has found a giant virus that can infect humans.

[Photo Courtesy Incredible Arctic / Shutterstock]