Earlier this week, a team of French researchers announced plans to wake up an ancient virus that has been lying dormant in Siberia’s frozen wastelands for the last 30,000 years.
The virus, known as Mollivirus sibericum, was found in the permafrost of northeastern Russia and is the fourth prehistoric virus to be discovered since 2003.
While it’s unlikely that the virus will pose any serious health threats, the researchers still plan to confirm that the bug is unable to infect humans or animals before they reanimate it.
“A few viral particles that are still infectious may be enough, in the presence of a vulnerable host, to revive potentially pathogenic viruses,”
said Jean-Michel Claverie, one of the lead researchers, in an interview with the AFP.
Researchers are certainly excited about the potential scientific value of studying the Mollivirus, but they also warn that climate change, coupled with industrial exploitation, will likely release more prehistoric pathogens in the coming years.
The region of Siberia where the virus was found is known for its vast mineral resources, specifically its oil reserves. And as more of Siberia’s permafrost melts, more of these reserves will become accessible to industry.
“If we are not careful, and we industrialize these areas without putting safeguards in place, we run the risk of one day waking up viruses such as small pox that we thought were eradicated,”
But this won’t be the first time that the researchers have woken up a long-dormant virus: in 2013, Claverie and his team reanimated a similar virus, which they called Pithovirus sibericum, in a petri dish.
The study of prehistoric viruses over the past decade has revealed some pretty astonishing findings. One of the most surprising is the discovery that prehistoric viruses are actually much more complex than the ones we have around today.
Mollivirus sibericum contains more than 500 genes, and the Pithovirus that was revived in 2013 had around 2,500. By comparison, the modern Influenza A virus (the flu bug) has just eight genes.