April 1, 2023

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The virus rebounded 48,000 years later in frozen Siberia

An ancient virus that waited tens of thousands of years in Siberian permafrost has rebounded in the laboratory and remained infectious, a development that highlights the dangers of climate change.

Previous studies showed that the so-called permafrost, which is the land that remains below zero degrees Celsius throughout the year, provides an excellent environment for preserving organic matter, as it protects it from light and surface oxygen.

Woolly mammoths and other prehistoric animals often float as temperatures rise in the Arctic and thaw Earth’s ice for the first time in tens of thousands of years.

Jean-Michel Clavery, a professor at the Faculty of Medicine in Marseille, has been studying ancient permafrost viruses for years in order to assess potential risks to humans.

In the year 2024, Claverie and his colleagues manage to resurrect a zombie virus that has been frozen in Siberian soil for 30,000 years.

For safety reasons, the research team is not studying viruses that can infect humans, but so-called “giant viruses” that infect amoebas and are large enough to be seen under a simple light microscope.

An artificial color electron microscope image showing Pithovirus sibericum found in 2014 in a 30,000-year-old sample (Jean-Michel Claverie/IGS/CNRS-AMU)

In the new study published in the journal virusesClaverier’s group describes a variety of giant viruses isolated from seven different regions of Siberia that can infect amoebae after molt.

The most recent samples came from the stomachs of mammoths and goats that had lain in permafrost for 27,000 years.

The oldest of the new zombie viruses, 48,500 years old, was found in a sample taken from 16 meters below the surface.

The study warns that the Siberian permafrost contains a large number of different viruses, and it is reasonable to assume that some of them can infect mammals such as humans.

The researchers also recall three previous disturbing incidents.

The first involves the body of a woman found buried in permafrost in Alaska that contains genetic material for the influenza virus that caused the 1918 pandemic.

A different research team in 2012 discovered the genetic signature of smallpox virus in the body of a woman buried in Siberia 300 years ago.

More recently, in the summer of 2016, an anthrax outbreak that killed more than 2,000 reindeer and infected many people was linked to thawed soil containing spores of the bacterium Bacillus anthracis.

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