A giant virus that has been perfectly preserved in the frozen wastelands of northeastern Russia is about to be brought back to life. Scientists said they will “reanimate” the 30,000-year-old bug to learn more about it and discover if it is harmful to animals or humans.
Mollivirus sibericum means soft Siberian virus, but lay observers have quickly dubbed it “Frankenvirus.” In the world of viruses it is a monster, with 523 genetic proteins. Mollivirus sibericum measures 0.6 microns and can be seen using light microscopy.
The Mollivirus sibericum virus is the fourth prehistoric virus to have been discovered since 2003, and experts warn climate change and thawing ice could resurrect more similar, dangerous pathogens. The virus was discovered by the French National Center for Scientific Research in the Kolyma lowland region of Russia.
It is the second virus of its kind to be found by the team, and joins other giant viruses including the Minivirus from 2003, the Pandoraviruses found in 2013, and Pithovirus sibericum which was discovered last year.
The regions in which these giant microbes are being discovered are being increasingly exploited for their coveted mineral resources, especially oil. Concerningly, the rate at which they are exploited will increase as the areas become increasingly accessible as more of the ice melts away. And simultaneously, climate change is warming the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions at more than twice the global average, which means permafrost is thawing.
“A few viral particles that are still infectious may be enough, in the presence of a vulnerable host, to revive potentially pathogenic viruses,” lead researcher Jean-Michel Claverie, said. “If we are not careful, and we industrialize these areas without putting safeguards in place, we run the risk of one day waking up viruses such as small pox that we thought were eradicated,” he added.
Professor Claverie and his colleagues will attempt to revive the newly discovered virus by placing it with single-cell amoeba, which will serve as its host. Pithovirus sibericum was “reanimated” in March 2014 using similar techniques. The Pithovirus sibericum virus was found in a 98 ft deep sample of permanently frozen soil taken from coastal tundra in Chukotka, near the East Siberia Sea.
Unlike most viruses circulating today, these ancient specimens are not only bigger, but are far more complex genetically. M. sibericum has more than 500 genes, while another family of giant virus discovered in 2003, Pandoravirus, has 2,500. The Influenza A virus, by contrast, has eight genes.
In 2004, US scientists resurrected the “Spanish flu” virus, which killed tens of millions of people at the start of the 20th century, in order to understand why the pathogen was so virulent. US researchers flew to Alaska to take frozen lung tissues from a woman who was buried in permafrost. By teasing genetic details out of these precious samples and from autopsy tissues stored in formalin, the team reconstructed the code for the virus’ eight genes. The work was done in a top-security lab at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).