Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Giant Virus Found Frozen in Tundra

Giant virus revived from deep freeze in Siberian tundra
A 30,000-year-old giant virus has been revived from the frozen Siberian tundra, sparking concern that increased mining and oil drilling in rapidly warming northern latitudes could disturb dormant microbial life that could one day prove harmful to man.

The latest find, described online Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, appears to belong to a new family of mega-viruses that infect only amoeba. But its revival in a laboratory stands as “a proof of principle that we could eventually resurrect active infectious viruses from different periods,” said the study’s lead author, microbiologist Jean-Michel Claverie of Aix-Marseille University in France.

“We know that those non-dangerous viruses are alive there, which probably is telling us that the dangerous kind that may infect humans and animals -- that we think were eradicated from the surface of Earth -- are actually still present and eventually viable, in the ground,” Claverie said.
I'm relatively confident that the only reason they managed to identify this virus a being revived from the tundra is because it's such an unusual virus; I'm sure the frozen tundra from 30K year ago was chock full of the ordinary viruses that we encountered daily and don't bother us at all, viruses that infect bacteria, viruses that infect plants, viruses that infect all the soil microorganisms, and invertebrates. Viruses have to be fairly specialized to infect organisms; they need to be adapted to proteins in the host cell to infect; the further an organism is from the "normal host" the less likely a virus is to find a foothold.  I suppose it's possible that a given piece of Siberian tundra was shit on by a sick Neandertal, Denisovan or early modern human 30,000 years ago; but if true, it's probable that if it was a serious illness, mankind has already evolved immunity to it.

Now we get to the fund raising part of the story:
With climate change making northern reaches more accessible, the chance of disturbing dormant human pathogens increases, the researchers concluded. Average surface temperatures in the area that contained the virus have increased more steeply than in more temperate latitudes, the researchers noted.

“People will go there; they will settle there, and they will start mining and drilling,” Claverie said. “Human activities are going to perturb layers that have been dormant for 3 million years and may contain viruses.”
People have been mining and drilling in all kinds of environments for a long time, exposing old sediments possibly carrying viable viruses.  It hasn't caused a problem yet.

I would hasten to add that the fact that there is frozen tundra there at all proves that during the peak of the previous interglacial, it was already warmer there than it is now.

Bonus cave girls:

Wombat-socho is back on track this week at The Other McCain with "Rule 5 Sunday: Take It Like A Man."


  1. LOL - sounds like a Michael Crichton novel

  2. the real problem

    Other permafrost researchers said the possibility that it harbours revivable viruses is real, and adds to the fear that reawakened microbes in thawing permafrost may increase global warming by digesting organic matter and releasing greenhouse gases such as methane and carbon dioxide.

  3. Few things: Not even Holmes would be able to make such assurances. Not one can be a 100% sure that most or at least the majority of dormant viruses are are either no longer harmless to humans or that they only attack other species.

    Yes, the human genome mutates frequently and evolves in such a way as to protect against certain pathogens. Evolution, however, can not develop immunity against something that is not there. One can not simply be horrible at soccer, take a few years off and hope to be a superstar the next time the opportunity to play presents itself. Sure, maybe a handful of people were able to survive and develop immunity against said deadly virus before it went dormant. Even so, only direct descendants of said people would have such immunity. This is assuming evolution did not get rid of said immunity given that it has not been needed for thousands of years. Either way, if such immunity were to exists it would more than likely be limited to a region/nation and a handful of people who have migrated away from it.

    Should people be afraid? Maybe. Would scientists be able to contain a deadly virus? Maybe, but even if they do a good handful of people will still die. What can we do? Go back to watching TV and keeping up with celebrity gossip. There is nothing you can do.