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posted by janrinok on Monday September 14 2015, @08:08PM   Printer-friendly
from the well-the-movies-always-said-it-would-happen dept.

An ancient virus has "come back to life" after lying dormant for at least 30,000 years, scientists say.

It was found frozen in a deep layer of the Siberian permafrost, but after it thawed it became infectious once again. The French scientists say the contagion poses no danger to humans or animals, but other viruses could be unleashed as the ground becomes exposed.

The study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Professor Jean-Michel Claverie, from the National Centre of Scientific Research (CNRS) at the University of Aix-Marseille in France, said: "This is the first time we've seen a virus that's still infectious after this length of time."

The ancient pathogen was discovered buried 30m (100ft) down in the frozen ground. Called Pithovirus sibericum, it belongs to a class of giant viruses that were discovered 10 years ago. These are all so large that, unlike other viruses, they can be seen under a microscope. And this one, measuring 1.5 micrometres in length, is the biggest that has ever been found. The last time it infected anything was more than 30,000 years ago, but in the laboratory it has sprung to life once again.

Tests show that it attacks amoebas, which are single-celled organisms, but does not infect humans or other animals.

Co-author Dr Chantal Abergel, also from the CNRS, said: "It comes into the cell, multiplies and finally kills the cell. It is able to kill the amoeba - but it won't infect a human cell."

However, the researchers believe that other more deadly pathogens could be locked in Siberia's permafrost. "We are addressing this issue by sequencing the DNA that is present in those layers," said Dr Abergel. "This would be the best way to work out what is dangerous in there."

The researchers say this region is under threat. Since the 1970s, the permafrost has retreated and reduced in thickness, and climate change projections suggest it will decrease further. It has also become more accessible, and is being eyed for its natural resources.

Prof Claverie warns that exposing the deep layers could expose new viral threats.

He said: "It is a recipe for disaster. If you start having industrial explorations, people will start to move around the deep permafrost layers. Through mining and drilling, those old layers will be penetrated and this is where the danger is coming from."

He told BBC News that ancient strains of the smallpox virus, which was declared eradicated 30 years ago, could pose a risk. "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," he said.


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  • (Score: 5, Interesting) by RedBear on Monday September 14 2015, @09:48PM

    by RedBear (1734) on Monday September 14 2015, @09:48PM (#236453)

    We like to think we are the rulers of this planet, but in reality it has always belonged entirely to the billions of forms of microscopic life that originally thrived here for hundreds of millions of years before the first multi-cellular life ever appeared. In our ignorance and inability to directly perceive microscopic life we look around and think, "Oh, there's nothing here but a few animals and plants." But microbiota are literally everywhere, from just above the upper layers of magma in the lowest layers of the crust and the deepest parts of the ocean, to the outer reaches of the atmosphere and beyond, and of course everywhere you look inside our own bodies. We depend on them for our very existence. Not even the insect kingdom has true ownership of this world (sorry, entomologists).

    With microscopic life's ability to self-replicate, it contaminates this world more persistently and more permanently than any chemical or radioactive contamination ever could. Even if we could decontaminate the world of all microscopic life, we'd just end up killing ourselves since all higher-order life depends upon the microbiome in literally endless different ways. The fact that any of us macro life forms are even able to exist successfully on the same planet as the septillions of microorganisms is a straight-up miracle. The ability of microbiota to persist and survive in every microscopic nook and cranny is why I always have to facepalm every time someone thinks we can stop vaccinating for some disease like polio or smallpox just because for the briefest instant of geological time it has been, quote, "effectively eradicated". Until we can scan the entire planet instantaneously Star Trek style and somehow determine that there isn't a single polio virus left anywhere in existence, the idea that any disease has been "eradicated" is utter nonsense. You could "glass" the entire planet with nukes and ultimately fail to completely eradicate a single disease.

    Until we develop the ability to instill our offspring with permanent, built-in immunity to the diseases we currently vaccinate for, there will be no point in future history where it will really be safe to stop those vaccinations. Doing so would simply allow the next encounter with the virus to propagate through the population with impunity, possibly through a world with much higher population density where everyone has even forgotten what that disease is and how to deal with it. There was even an Asimov novel with this idea as the main plot line. Some Earth-based terrorists tried to send a bunch of relatively innocuous microorganisms to every off-Earth colony where the "Spacers" had foolishly decontaminated themselves and lost the ability to deal with those "innocuous" disease organisms. I've forgotten the title of this book or whether it was a novel or short story.

    All that being said, the immune systems of plants and other macro-life like mammals are pretty sophisticated and have been developing for hundreds of millions of years. While we may see some "new" diseases appear that have never been known to written human history, it's fairly unlikely that even being exposed to billions of old/new microorganisms that haven't been encountered for tens of thousands of years is going to be too much of a problem. For one thing, these old bacteria and viruses haven't had any time to adapt to even antibiotics as old as penicillin. Of course it must be acknowledged that antibiotics typically only work on bacterial infections, not viral.

    An interesting aspect of the mentioned virus is that it attacks amoebas, which are considered quite hardy and difficult to kill. If we figure out how it kills amoebas maybe we'd have a better chance of saving those kids who get amoebic infections in the brain from swimming in warm, muddy rivers.

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  • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Monday September 14 2015, @11:06PM

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday September 14 2015, @11:06PM (#236469)

    amoebic infections in the brain

    link:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-33728104 [bbc.co.uk]

  • (Score: 2) by penguinoid on Monday September 14 2015, @11:44PM

    by penguinoid (5331) on Monday September 14 2015, @11:44PM (#236483)

    Another interesting thing about a giant virus attacking amoebas, is that amoebas are huge and also have a huge genome.

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    • (Score: 2) by Reziac on Tuesday September 15 2015, @02:13AM

      by Reziac (2489) on Tuesday September 15 2015, @02:13AM (#236519) Homepage

      This immediately makes me wonder if the virus itself has been incorporated into amoebas at some point.

      --
      And there is no Alkibiades to come back and save us from ourselves.