February 3, 2023

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A 48,500-year-old virus that rebounds from permafrost

A virus trapped in permafrost when Neanderthals were still stomping on the ground after the lab snow thawed has returned: it’s 48,500 years old and the oldest yet. A group of scientists from the University of Aix-Marseille in France isolated it In addition to 12 new viruses of different typestaken from 7 permanently frozen soil samples in Siberia.

Close to the minimum age. The 48,500-year-old infectious agent was found in a layer of permafrost located 16 meters below the bottom of a lake in Yakutia in eastern Siberia. This is such a giant virus Pandora virusGiant entities With an incredibly large and minimally known genomea thousand times larger than the influenza virus (near a thousandth of a millimeter).

Nearly 50,000 years, for viruses, is an all-time record. The youngest virus ever revived in the study was still 27,000 years old. In theory, it would be possible to activate ancient viruses again (permafrost is up to a million years deep) but radiocarbon dating is usually used to give an age of frozen soil as short as 50,000 years.

An irritant for amoeba. Nine of the viruses diagnosed were found to be able to infect and reproduce again once they were released from their cold packaging: fortunately none were able to attack plants or animals, because the team looked for viruses that affect amoebae, which are mainly single-celled organisms. Just deliberate. Shape change.

The scientists added the collected permafrost to cultures of amoebae in the laboratory and after a while examined the plates under a microscope to see if the young animals were still infected – evidence that the “thawed” viruses had come back to life. In those same lumps of permafrost, there may also have been other types of viruses that don’t attack amoebae, and they haven’t been looked for.

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Close contacts. If the study authors are able to make giant viruses that have been dormant in permafrost for so long infectious, pathogens dangerous to plants and animals could also become active again. With the permanently frozen ground thawing due to the climate crisis.

This is a real danger especially for people who commute and work on arctic soils today. If once this region of the planet was almost completely uninhabited, today it is much more populated Because its mineral resources are desired by manyThe step before extraction is to remove the top layers of permafrost.

Sometimes they come back. The thawing of permafrost caused by global warming, which is accelerating in the Arctic, can bring to light even ancient viruses on its own, along with massive amounts of methane and carbon dioxide and without the need for physical human intervention.

However, it seems unrealistic that one such pathogen could cause a pandemic – the climate crisis is scary enough in itself, without having other horrific consequences beyond disruption of ecosystems.