What could possibly go wrong?! 48,500-year-old anthrax virus has been revived

What could possibly go wrong?! 48,500-year-old anthrax virus has been revived

The world’s oldest known frozen and dormant virus has been revived in a French lab, prompting many to raise concerns about the dangers of reviving ancient microbes. The virus was recovered from the Siberian permafrost in Russia’s Far East and is 48,500 years old, offering proof that viruses are incredibly durable and able to survive indefinitely when stored in a frozen state.

Melting Siberian permafrost in Pandora’s box full of viruses

This particular virus is actually one of nine different types of viruses that have been resuscitated from samples of Siberian permafrost in recent years. This includes seven viruses resuscitated for this new study and two other approx 30,000-year-old viruses brought back to life by the same team of researchers from other samples taken in 2013. The youngest of these viruses was frozen 27,000 years ago.

As reported in the peer-reviewed journal bioRxivthe 48,500-year-old virus was named Pandoravirus yedoma , in relation to Pandora’s box. The virus was detected in a sample of permafrost taken from 52 feet (16 m) below the bottom of a lake at Yukechi Alas in the Russian Republic of Yakutia.

The first pandoravirus was one of two viruses discovered in 2013, although this one was of a completely different type. “48,500 years is a world record,” he said A new scientist .

In addition to age, the other notable characteristic of this pandoravirus is its size. Classified as a type of giant virus, Pandoravirus yedoma is approximately one micrometer long and .5 micrometer wide. This means they can be examined directly under a microscope. It contains approximately 2,500 genes, unlike the tiny modern viruses that infect humans, which have no more than 10 to 20 genes.

Climate change and the resulting thawing of permafrost could release a mass of new Siberian viruses into the atmosphere. ( Andrey Mihailov / Adobe Stock)

Climate change and the threat of viruses spreading in the permafrost

Given the disturbing coronavirus pandemic world has just experienced, it may seem alarming that these scientists are deliberately reviving long-lost viruses previously hidden in the frozen wastes of Siberia. But they say this research is needed to assess the dangers associated with climate change.

“A quarter of the Northern Hemisphere is under permanently frozen ground, called permafrost,” they wrote in their recently published paper. As permafrost thaws, organic matter that has been frozen for millions of years is thawed. One of the effects of this is the release of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, which amplifies the greenhouse effect.

The other is that “some of this organic matter also consists of reanimated cellular microbes (prokaryotes, single-celled eukaryotes) as well as viruses that have remained latent since prehistoric times,” the authors explain in bioRxiv. Only by extracting viruses from permafrost samples and reviving them under controlled conditions, scientists say, will it be possible to assess the nature of the threat they may pose to human health and safety in a warmer, permafrost-free future.

Since permafrost covers more than a quarter of the entire land area in the Northern Hemisphere, this is not an idle concern. The viral load currently locked in permafrost is undoubtedly enormous, and if all of it were to be released within a few decades, it could likely trigger an avalanche of new viral infections in a variety of host species.

None of these victims would be immune to the effects of viral agents that have been out of circulation for tens of thousands of years. The immune system will eventually adapt, but it may be too late to prevent a catastrophic loss of life that spans the spectrum of microbial, plant and animal life.

The 48,500-year-old Siberian virus is a pandoravirus that infects single-celled organisms known as amoebae.  (Claverie et. al/bioRxiv)

The 48,500-year-old Siberian virus is a pandoravirus that infects single-celled organisms known as amoebae. (Claveri et al. / bioRxiv)

Immortal Viruses May Be Back Soon, In Quantities Too Amazing To Imagine

Concerns about melting permafrost are not just theoretical. The once-frozen ground has already begun to thaw in some areas, and this has allowed scientists to recover frozen and well-preserved specimens of animals that lived during the Paleolithic period.

In recent years, remains have been found of woolly rhinos that went extinct 14,000 years ago, and in one case, scientists discovered a 40,000-year-old wolf head that was in near-pristine condition. Woolly mammoth the remains proved particularly easy to find in the freshly thawed soil, so much so that a black market industry emerged in which mammoth tusks extracted from illegally discovered mammoth skeletons are sold to ivory traders.

What worries scientists about this development is that powerful infectious agents may be lurking in these well-preserved remains of ancient animals. It should be noted that the 27,000-year-old virus found in this new study was not removed from the lake bottom sample, but instead was recovered from frozen mammoth excrement taken from a different permafrost core .

Needless to say, ancient viruses released from thawed animal hosts would be more likely to become something threatening to humans than a virus that specifically attacks microbes like an amoeba.

Winter landscape and frozen lake in Yakutia, Siberia.  (Tatiana Gasič/Adobe Stock)

Winter landscape and frozen lake in Yakutia, Siberia. ( Tatyana Gasich / Adobe Stock)

The hidden danger of ancient bacteria and viruses in the thawing permafrost

In their research paper, Professor Claveri and his colleagues highlighted how dangerous ancient bacteria and viruses can be to modern life forms of all kinds. Even if they were frozen in deeper levels of permafrost for millions of years, they could become active again if permafrost disappears.

Compared to outbreaks of modern viruses, “the situation would be much more catastrophic in the case of plant, animal or human diseases caused by the resurgence of an ancient unknown virus,” the French scientists wrote. “As is unfortunately well documented by recent (and ongoing) pandemics, any new virus, even related to known families, almost always requires the development of very specific medical responses, such as new antivirals or vaccines.”

The Arctic regions of the planet are largely free of permanent human settlement. But researchers point out that more people are visiting the planet’s coldest regions than ever before, mainly to harvest valuable resources such as oil, gold and diamonds, which are abundant in these hitherto underexplored areas. In strip mining operations, the upper layers of permafrost are actually ripped intentionally, meaning exposure to viruses during such operations may be unavoidable.

“How long these viruses could remain infectious after being exposed to external conditions (UV light, oxygen, heat) and how likely they are to encounter and infect a suitable host in that interval is still impossible to assess,” the scientists conclude. “But the risk is bound to increase in the context of Global Warming when the thawing of the permafrost will continue to accelerate and more people will populate it Arctic as a result of industrial undertakings.’

Other scientists have warned of the dangers of releasing viruses in Arctic through the melting of glaciers, which is another possible side effect of global warming. This can expose animals and people to flowing rivers of glacial meltwater that can carry pathogens to new areas further south.

It remains to be seen whether any of these worst-case scenarios will come to pass. But even a small amount of melting, regardless of the cause, could be enough to release some potentially dangerous viral agents into the global environment, home to billions of vulnerable people.

Top image: Colony of microbes, representative image. source: iarhei / Adobe Stock

By Nathan Falde

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