Scientists have decided to bring back a 30,000-year-old “giant” virus which has been hiding in Siberian permafrost since the last Ice Age.
After determining that the prehistoric virus, Mollivirus sibericum, can’t harm humans or animals, scientists from the French National Centre for Scientific Research announced their plan to revive the virus, CNET reported. The hope is that reviving the virus could reveal information about dormant viruses that could possibly "reawaken" as the permafrost melts due to global warming.
The virus is considered "giant" because it's visible with a light microscope, unlike normal virus specimens, Vice noted. The virus also houses more than 500 genes. This amount is indeed "giant" compared to a virus like influenza, which only houses eight genes.
The same team of researchers has already revived another 30,000-year-old virus, Pithovirus sibericum, which was found in permafrost. However, that virus could infect amoebas, CNET reported.
“The fact that two different viruses retain their infectivity in prehistorical permafrost layers should be of concern in a context of global warming," the group said in an abstract in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) journal. "Giant viruses' diversity remains to be fully explored.”
The possibility of giant, ancient viruses "reawakening" is especially concerning given the possibility of oil drilling in those areas.
"It's possible that viruses from similar viral families, or previously discovered virus families, turn out to be [harmful] pathogens," Jean-Michel Claverie, head of France's Structural and Genomic Information laboratory (IGS) and the PNAS study’s co-author, told Vice.
"In the event of mining operations, millions of tons of these layers will be dug up and exposed to air," he added. All the conditions will be in place for the reactivation of these viruses, some of which could be pathogens."