Scientists find 30,000-year old virus in siberian ice

While it is far from the nightmare portrayed in the movie “The Thing,” it is still exciting news. Scientists working in Siberia have discovered and revived a virus that had been entombed in ice for 300 centuries. When it emerged, it was still able to infect host amoebas.

According to Scientific American magazine, researchers suggest, “as the Earth’s ice melts, this could trigger the return of other ancient viruses, with potential risks for human health.” It is yet another story emerging from the complex issue of warming and climate change and what implications it might have for human life.

A group of French scientists head up the effort, reporting their findings in the journal “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA.” Author Jean-Michel Claverie, who works for the National Centre of Scientific Research in the University of Aix-Marseille, said to the BBC, “This is the first time we’ve seen a virus that’s still infectious after this length of time.” In testing, the virus attacked amoebas, multiplying inside the cells before bursting out to repeat the process.

This virus’ viability after being sealed in the ice for so long was not its only unique trait. Another was its “gigantic” size. Of course, it is still invisible to the naked eye, but it is a titan among its kind. Named Pithovirus sibericum, it measures around 1.5 micometers, the largest virus ever found, comparable in size to a small bacterium.

This group of scientists has been involved in discovering large viruses before; they discovered a viral organisms called Pandoraviruses last year. Virologist Curtis Suttle, a virologist who works at the University of British Columbia at Vancouver noted, “Once again, this group has opened our eyes to the enormous diversity that exists in giant viruses” (Scientific American).

Another unique aspect of this virus is that it is far less densely constructed than most viruses. Viruses tend to be compressed, packing as much DNA as possible into their minuscule bodies. Claviere told Scientific American that “That huge part [Pithovirus] is basically empty,” and adds that it is “150 times less compacted than any bacteriophage. We don’t understand anything anymore!” Additionally, rather than taking over the nucleus of host cells, like most viruses, this pathogen manufactures copies of itself in the cytoplasm instead (Scientific American).

Researchers expressed concerns that the thawing of the ice and greater exploration of exposed land for resources could have implications for disease if other viruses were released from the ice. Claviere noted, “It is a recipe for disaster. If you start having industrial explorations, people will start to move around the deep permafrost layers. Through mining and drilling, those old layers will be penetrated and this is where the danger is coming from” (BBC). One example of this phenomenon could be the release of an ancient version of the smallpox virus, which was eradicated through vaccination 30 years ago.

Curtis Suttle, however, disagrees, saying that the idea of melting ice releasing dangerous infections “stretches scientific rationality to the breaking point” (Scientific American). It would be better, he suggests, to focus on the enormous social and ecological changes that will affect people when the ice melts. These include massive displacement, drought, flooding and other concerns that have been well documented in the last 20 years of climate research.