Health

Scientists Revive Ancient Virus Frozen For Over 30,000 Years

| by Jonathan Wolfe

Bad news for those of us who don't like viruses.

French scientists recently revived a virus after it had been frozen in Siberian permafrost for over 30,000 years. The virus, called Pithovirus sibericum, became infectious after scientists thawed it from the freeze.

"This is the first time we've seen a virus that's still infectious after this length of time,” Professor Jean-Michael Claverie said.

Don’t worry about Pithovirus infecting you – it only attacks single-celled organisms. But the fact that ancient frozen viruses can remain infectious poses a serious potential threat if arctic regions continue thawing as they have since the 1970’s. Professor Claverie notes that the same region Pithovirus was revived from is being eyed by businesses all over the world because of its natural resources.

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"It is a recipe for disaster,” Claverie said. “If you start having industrial explorations, people will start to move around the deep permafrost layers. Through mining and drilling, those old layers will be penetrated and this is where the danger is coming from."

Claverie told BBC News that formerly eradicated viruses such as smallpox could be lying dormant in the freeze.

"If it is true that these viruses survive in the same way those amoeba viruses survive, then smallpox is not eradicated from the planet - only the surface," he said. "By going deeper we may reactivate the possibility that smallpox could become again a disease of humans in modern times."

Professor Jonathan Ball is a virologist from the University of Nottingham. He commented on the research and said that, although the Pithovirus findings are alarming, we shouldn’t expect to see all viruses remain so potent after being frozen for such a long time.

"Finding a virus still capable of infecting its host after such a long time is still pretty astounding - but just how long other viruses could remain viable in permafrost is anyone's guess,” he said. “It will depend a lot on the actual virus. I doubt they are all as robust as this one.”

Sources: BBC, PNAS