What you’re about to read may sound like the plot of an upcoming science fiction thriller, but we assure you, it’s all real. Scientists are preparing to bring a 30,000-year-old giant virus back to life, after it was unearthed from the frozen wastelands of Siberia. The bug in question, called Mollivirus sibericum, is the fourth type of prehistoric virus found since 2003 and researchers hope that reanimating the virus will help us learn about what’s in store as the permafrost melts. French researchers are currently investigating whether it could pose a potential harm to humans or animals before they revive the so-called Frankenvirus.
The main reason that researchers are considering resuscitating this ancient giant virus is because they are concerned about what will happen as permafrost continues to melt as a result of climate change. It’s possible, the research team believes, that the rising global temperatures could awaken dangerous pathogens that have been locked away in the permafrost for thousands of years. Although this particular virus is hoped to be innocuous to humans and animals, others might not be so benign.
The classification as a giant virus isn’t just descriptive, it’s an actual category assigned to a virus based on its size. In this case, virus has to be longer than half a micron, a thousandth of a millimeter (0.00002 of an inch) to be considered a “giant” and this one measures 0.6 microns and was found in the permafrost of northeastern Russia.
“A few viral particles that are still infectious may be enough, in the presence of a vulnerable host, to revive potentially pathogenic viruses,” one of the lead researchers, Jean-Michel Claverie, told AFP. The newly discovered virus will be revived in a lab by placing it with single-cell amoeba, which will serve as its host. These ancient virus specimens have inspired a great deal of curiosity among scientists in general, and this particular team has now discovered two of the last four such prehistoric bugs. The specimens dating from the last Ice Age are not only bigger, but far more complex genetically as compared to modern pathogens, so researchers are eager to investigate what other properties might differ between past and present.
Images via Shutterstock and PNAS