Scientists in Siberia have revived ancient "zombie viruses" that had been frozen for eons

Scientists in Siberia have revived ancient “zombie viruses” that had been frozen for eons

As the world warms, huge chunks of permafrost are melting, releasing material that has been trapped in its icy grip for years. This includes a whole range of microbes, in some cases lying dormant for hundreds of millennia.

Now, to study the emerging microbes, scientists have resurrected a number of these “zombie viruses” from Siberia’s permafrost, including one thought to be nearly 50,000 years old — a record age for a frozen virus to return to a state , which can infect other organisms.

The team behind the work, led by microbiologist Jean-Marie Alempic of the French National Center for Scientific Research, says these resuscitating viruses may pose a significant public health threat and more studies need to be conducted to assess the danger posed by running out of these infectious agents could pose as they wake up from their icy slumber.

“A quarter of the northern hemisphere is covered by permanently frozen ground called permafrost,” the researchers write in their paper.

“Due to global warming, irreversibly thawing permafrost releases organic material that has been frozen for up to a million years, most of which breaks down into carbon dioxide and methane, further amplifying the greenhouse effect.”

The 48,500-year-old amoeba virus is actually one of 13 described in a new study currently in prepress, nine of which are believed to be tens of thousands of years old. The researchers found that each had a different genome from all other known viruses.

While the record-breaking virus was found under a lake, other extraction sites included mammoth wool and the guts of a Siberian wolf – all buried under permafrost. Using live unicellular amoeba cultures, the team proved that the viruses still had the potential to be infectious pathogens.

We are also seeing large numbers of bacteria being released into the environment as the world warms, but given the antibiotics available to us, one could argue that they would prove less of a threat. A novel virus – like SARS-CoV-2 – could become much more of a public health concern as the Arctic becomes more densely populated.

“The situation would be far more catastrophic in the case of plant, animal or human disease caused by the revival of an ancient unknown virus,” the researchers write.

“It is therefore legitimate to consider the risk of old virus particles remaining infectious and being re-circulated by thawing old layers of permafrost.”

This team is in the form of painstakingly digging up viruses in Siberia, with a previous study detailing the discovery of a 30,000-year-old virus. Like the new record holder, this was a Pandoravirus, a giant large enough to be seen under a light microscope.

The revived virus has been given the name Pandoravirus Yedoma, acknowledging its size and the type of permafrost in which it was found. The researchers believe that there are many more viruses to be found besides the viruses that only target amoebas.

Many of the viruses released as the ice thaws will be completely unknown to us – although it remains to be seen how contagious these viruses will be when exposed to light, heat and oxygen in the outside environment. All of these are areas that could be explored in future studies.

The virologist Eric Delwart from the University of California, San Francisco, agrees that these giant viruses are just the beginning when it comes to exploring what lies beneath the permafrost. Although Delwart not involved in the current study, he has extensive experience in reviving ancient plant viruses.

“If the authors actually isolate live viruses from ancient permafrost, it’s likely that the even smaller, simpler mammalian viruses would also survive frozen for eons,” Delwart said New scientist.

The research is not yet peer-reviewed but is available on bioRxiv.

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