Tucked in a 30,000-year old squirrel nest, a newly discovered giant ancient virus has been lying 30 meters under the Siberian permafrost until a few years ago.
The impressive virus, nested for so long in nature’s own freezer is not (yet) posing any threat to humanity as the scientists decided it wouldn’t be so wise to wake up a giant virus that was found to number over 500 genes.
Dubbed Mollivirus sibericum, a combination of words reminding of its consistency and the place it was found in, the giant ancient virus was a fortuitous side-discovery to other items of interest carefully gathered by the squirrel 30,000 years ago.
Jean-Michel Claverie, Professor of medical genomics and bioinformatic with the University of Mediterranean School of Medicine in Marseille, France described how this discovery came about. Intrigued about a research paper that detailed how a plant had been grown from a seed found in the same squirrel nest, he sent out a request to the Russian research team asking to jump-start a research collaboration project.
Following, Claverie received the intriguing core sample and wondered what else could be found in there besides the squirrel’s precious seeds.
“We use amoeba as bait to fish out whatever viruses may be in that specific sample”,
he explained. From here, the process of discovering the giant virus went easily. The amoebas grown in the laboratory and then mixed with permafrost samples yielded some results after a period when no changes were observed. The amoebas started dying. As soon as this happened, the petri dishes where the phenomenon was occurring were separated from the rest. A safe and closer look was necessary to understand what was killing the amoeba.
Mollivirus sibericum was found guilty. This giant ancient virus was accompanied by another three. Since 2003, this is the fourth impressive virus found in one sample of Siberian permafrost.
How did the newly discovered ancient virus get the impressive adjective ‘giant’? Due to the mere number of genes found. Mollivirus sibericum contains over 500 genes. Previously discovered Pandoravirus numbers 2,500 genes.
Compare that to the problem-posing HIV, which only contains 9 genes and you get the bigger picture of just how dangerous any of these viruses could be if activated. For this reason, they are safeguarded under laboratory conditions for ongoing research.
Scientists believe there’s still a treasure trove of knowledge that further research on these giant ancient viruses could help bring to light.
Meanwhile, the paper describing the giant ancient virus Mollivirus sibericum and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, concludes with a warning.
There’s no need to talk of climate change and how it opens gates through previously inaccessible areas. As the arctic sea ice is melting, industry has taken a prime spot in oil drilling, gold mining and tungsten mining on the Siberian northern coast due to more accessible routes.
Permafrost is being displaced by millions of tons. If one sample of permafrost contained four giant ancient viruses, many more could be in frozen sleep. As global temperatures are increasing and the ice is melting, they could be reactivated.
Photo Credits: Dailymail