A giant prehistoric virus was unearthed by French scientists in the Siberian permafrost and it will be analyzed at the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS).
The discovery was made possible when astrobiologists tried to revive plant seeds which had been buried 30,000 years ago by a squirrel in its nest, located in Chukotka, East Siberia. Their aim was to analyze the likelihood of bacteria surviving in the harsh Siberian climate, which mirrors the one encountered on Mars.
As scientists were regenerating the frozen seeds into living flowers, they identified an ancient virus, which they named Mollivirus sibericum. This denomination stems from the French word “Molli” which means soft or flexible, while the “Sibericum” part is suggestive of the location where the virus was encountered.
The virus had been lying dormant under 30 meters of ice, and a sample was tested in the laboratory by using Acanthamoebae as “fishbait”. The two organisms were mixed in a petri dish and after a while researchers discovered that indeed the amoebae were dying as a result of being attacked by the virus, although it had been administered in a very low concentration.
Mollivirus measures approximately 0.6 microns (around a thousandth of a millimeter). However, it has been deemed as “giant” because, just like bacteria, it is visible under a light microscope. Also, it also has 523 genes, which is particularly awe-inspiring knowing that the highly dangerous HIV-virus contains just 9 genes, while the flu virus has 11.
By comparison however, a previously identified virus, called Pandoravirus, seems even more lethal, as it contains approximately 2,500 genes.
The ability of the Mollivirus sibericum to destroy the amoebae easily when just a few particles were employed suggests that its potency could even start an epidemic, if the virus were to escape the lab’s contained area. As a result, scientists handling the virus are extra careful to safeguard it and avoid a potential contamination.
“We’re not stupid enough to revive a virus that may pose a threat to human health”, insisted Michael Claverie, professor of medical genomics and bioinformatics at the Aix-Marseille University.
This is actually the fourth giant virus identified in the Siberian permafrost since 2003 and this recent discovery has been detailed in “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” journal.
As researchers have warned, the growing extensiveness of oil drilling and excavations for gold and tungsten along the coast of Siberia could potentially disturb and reactivate other life-threatening viruses, which have been preserved since ancient times. On the other hand, such breakthroughs could help explain the origins of life on Earth or assist in the development of new drugs and treatments.
Image Source: Phys.org