If you thought you had nothing to worry about from 700-year-old viruses, think again. Researchers just resurrected a virus from seven-century-old caribou poop and used it to infect a plant, showing that viruses can remain noxious for a very, very long time. So why does this matter to us? Because as climate change causes Arctic ice to melt, it could release any sort of unknown viruses into the environment – and there’s no telling what kind of impact long-dormant viruses could have for modern plants and animals.
Scientists isolated a virus, cleverly named ancient caribou feces associated virus (aCFV), that they found in well-preserved caribou feces in a Canadian ice patch. Eric Delwart, a researcher at the Blood Systems Research Institute, wanted to see if the virus could still be viral, so he cloned it and used it to infect a tobacco plant – and it worked. Though the plant didn’t show any outward signs of infection, damage clearly showed in the plant’s DNA.
Experimenting with viruses like aCFV allows us to better understand and prepare for re-emerging viruses. “As climate change accelerates the melting of arctic ice, it is possible that ancient viral particles and the associated nucleic acids could be released into the environment,” Delaware said. Other than knowing that the virus can still infect pants, we don’t yet have much other information, like what this particular virus traditionally infected, but it does shed some light on what might be down the road for us as climate change alters our environment.