French scientists recently announced that a giant virus uncovered in the Siberian permafrost has been thawed and revived. The virus, which is harmless to humans, had been trapped in the ice for more than 30,000 years. After thawing the virus, the team observed it replicate inside a petri dish, and eventually infect an amoeba that was placed in the dish with it. They’ve dubbed the strange new virus Pithovirus sibericum.
While giant viruses have been discovered before, P. sibericum is the first of its kind. At 1.5 millionths of a meter, it’s large enough to be seen through a regular optical microscope — rather than the electron microscopes needed to view most viruses. While the influenza virus has only 8 genes, this P. sibericum boasts a whopping 500. For those worried that a new disease has been unleashed upon the world, there’s no need to fear: P. sibericum only infects one specific type of amoeba, leaving animals and humans unaffected.
This finding does, however, raise cause for concern — because it proves that frozen viruses could potentially be released from permafrost or arctic ice as the world warms. Diseases that scientists believe to be eradicated, like smallpox, might reemerge in formerly-frozen lands and infect workers who travel there to harvest minerals or fossil fuels. It’s also possible that entirely new diseases might be unleashed. France’s National Centre for Scientific Research warned in a press statement that scientists need to take this potential public health risk seriously as the Arctic opens up for exploration.
Photos © Julia Bartoli & Chantal Abergel; Information Génomique et Structurale, CNRS-AMU