Giant Virus, Awakened From 30,000-Year Slumber, Is Still Infectious

By Carl Engelking | March 4, 2014 4:13 pm
Pithovirus virus

Pithovirus dates back more than 30,000 years. Credit: Julia Bartoli & Chantal Abergel, IGS, CNRS/AMU

Scientists in France have awoken a gigantic, ancient virus from its 30,000-year-long slumber in Siberian permafrost — and found that it’s ready to infect again.

There’s no need to scour eBay for a HAZMAT suit: the virus, dubbed Pithovirus sibericum, only infects single-celled amoebas. However, the discovery has scientists wondering what other microbes are hidden in melting permafrost awaiting another chance to infect.

“The revival of such an ancestral amoeba-infecting virus … suggests that the thawing of permafrost either from global warming or industrial exploitation of circumpolar regions might not be exempt from future threats to human or animal health,” scientists wrote in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

A Giant Virus

Evolutionary biologists Jean-Michel Claverie and Chantal Abergel discovered Pithovirus sibericum under 100 feet of coastal tundra in the far northeast of Russia. Their search was inspired by the earlier discovery that a 30,000-year-old plant could be resurrected from fruits buried in permafrost.

Wondering if a microbe could perform the same feat, Claverie and Abergel started hunting for ancient viruses in thawed permafrost samples, using amoebas as bait. When the amoebae started dying, they found the Pithovirus inside them. Pithovirus is the oldest virus to ever awaken from dormancy and remain infectious. It measures 1.5 micrometers long, about the size of a bacterium, making it the largest in a class of giant viruses that was discovered 10 years ago.

Potential Danger

If a 30,000-year-old virus can maintain its infectious abilities, Clevarie wonders if other microbes are capable of revisiting humanity in devastating fashion. He told the BBC:

“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. By going deeper we may reactivate the possibility that smallpox could become again a disease of humans in modern times.”

However, University of British Columbia virologist Curtis Suttle, not involved with the study, said we shouldn’t hit the panic button yet, since thousands of viruses enter the human body each day by simply breathing. He told Nature it “stretches scientific rationality to the breaking point” to think melting ice would hold enough microbes to affect humanity’s health on a large scale.

 

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts
MORE ABOUT: microbes & viruses
  • Rotimi Henry

    I hope Penicillin can kill it.

    • Misa Kami

      well we still dont know cuz it doesnt infect human. I hope they wont

      • nitemarejim

        Um, haven’t you heard of petri dishes? That’s where penicillin was discovered. You don’t need people to test infection.

    • carrie

      Antibiotics don’t kill viruses.

  • Misa Kami

    If Amoebas infect humans, and the virus lyses within the amoeba inside the human, can the virus attack the humans?

  • queenidog

    It is still “infectious” because viruses are not live things. It’s like a piece of fiberglass insulation being an irritant to the skin after 30,000 years. Viruses are just bits of protein that can’t reproduce on their own. Their not “dead”. They’ve never been alive.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Eric Lipps

      No, they are not “just bits of protein”; they have their own DNA (except for a minority which use RNA instead), but have jettisoned those mechanisms which would have allowed them to reproduce independently. It’s believed that up to 30 percent of the human genome is of viral origin, having become lodged in our ancient ancestors’ chromosomes and rendered harmless by disabling mutations (and in some cases even made beneficial by subsequent genetic changes).
      There are infectious proteins (“prions”), but they’re a different sort of entity altogether.

  • barneygoogle

    What gives these scientists the RIGHT to do this without informing humanity FIRST?

    • Bobby ‘Tables

      Science.

      • barneygoogle

        To Booby Tables: so if I can develop a synthetic virus that cures 40% of cancers but kills the other 60% of humanity–I alone shall decide to spead it…because I can?

        • lmanningok

          Hate to say it, barney, but that’s the way science has pretty much always worked…through experiments without foreknowledge of the consequences. But hey, we’re on an overpopulated planet, and this could be a way Mother Nature keeps her balance.

          • visibleunderwater

            right right….if we knew the outcome then we wouldn’t need to do experiments!

  • Kristym

    If a virus can survive then is it possible an asteroid or chunk of space debris may also contain surviving microorganisms like viruses?

    • visibleunderwater

      I think it’s highly probably. We’ve proven via experiments on ISS that both virus and bacteria can survive in space. Some theorize that the various “avian flu” strains might be coming in from “beyond” and infecting birds first. Virus’s are just peices of genetic code, they don’t really “die” since their not “alive”…the only way being in space might “kill” them is a random cosmic ray hitting them and breaking them apart.

  • Bretzky1

    “However, University of British Columbia virologist Curtis Suttle, not involved with the study, said we shouldn’t hit the panic button yet, since thousands of viruses enter the human body each day by simply breathing. He told Natureit “stretches scientific rationality to the breaking point” to think melting ice would hold enough microbes to affect humanity’s health on a large scale.”

    Yes, but what if humanity has no defense against the particular virus and it is a rapidly reproducing virus, like, I don’t know, every virus that ever caused a pandemic.

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

D-brief

Briefing you on the must-know news and trending topics in science and technology today.
ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT
Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »