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Ancient virus that has lain frozen in Siberian permafrost for 48,500 years is being revived

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An ancient virus that has lain frozen in Siberia’s permafrost for 48,500 years is the oldest virus yet brought to life, scientists say.

It is one of seven types of viruses in the permafrost that have been brought back to life after thousands of years.

The youngest had been frozen for 27,000 years and the oldest, called Pandoravirus yedoma, has been frozen for 48,500 years.

While the viruses are not considered a risk to humans, scientists warn that other viruses exposed by melted ice could be “disastrous” and lead to new pandemics.

The 48,500-year-old virus is a pandoravirus, which infects single-celled organisms known as amoebas. Figure A shows the isolated ovoid particle of pandoraviruses with a small hole or opening called an ostiole (white arrowhead). B shows a mixture of pandoravirus particles and ‘megavirus’ particles with a ‘stargate’ – a white starfish-like structure (white arrowhead)

Pandoravirus yedoma was found in permafrost 52ft (16m) below the bottom of a lake in Yukechi Unfortunately in Yakutia, Russia

Pandoravirus yedoma was found in permafrost 52ft (16m) below the bottom of a lake in Yukechi Unfortunately in Yakutia, Russia

REVIVED VIRUS TYPES

– Pandora virus

– Cedrat virus

– Mega virus

– Pacman virus

– Pitho virus

“48,500 years is a world record,” Jean-Michel Claverie, a virologist at the University of Aix-Marseille in France, told the New scientist.

Named after pandora’s box, pandoravirus is a genus of giant virus first discovered in 2013, and the second largest in physical size of any known viral genus after pithovirus.

Pandoravirus is a micrometer long and 0.5 micrometer wide, meaning it is visible with a light microscope.

This particular 48,500-year-old specimen was found in permafrost 16 meters below the bottom of a lake in Yukechi Unfortunately in Yakutia, Russia.

Professor Claverie and colleagues have previously revived two 30,000-year-old viruses from permafrost, the first of which was announced in 2014.

All nine viruses are capable of infecting single-celled organisms known as amoebas, but not plants or animals. However, other frozen viruses can be very dangerous to plant and animal life, including humans.

Permafrost is ground ground that remains permanently frozen even during the summer months.  Pictured is melting ice in the Arctic in spring

Permafrost is ground ground that remains permanently frozen even during the summer months. Pictured is melting ice in the Arctic in spring

DEFROST OF PERMAFROST AND GREENHOUSE GASES

Carbon has been frozen deep in arctic permafrost — soil that remains completely frozen -32 °F (0 °C) or colder — for at least two years straight.

As the Earth warms, scientists worry that some of the carbon in permafrost may escape into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide or methane.

Increasing the amount of these gases in the atmosphere could further warm the Earth’s climate.

More information: US National Snow and Ice Data Center

About 65 percent of Russia’s territory is classified as permafrost — ground that remains permanently frozen even during the summer months.

But as temperatures rise due to global warming, the ground is now beginning to thaw, coughing up animals and objects that have been frozen for thousands of years.

The remains of woolly rhinoceroses that became extinct about 14,000 years ago and a 40,000-year-old wolf head – so perfectly preserved it still had fur – have been unearthed in recent years.

It has even spawned an industry dependent on the woolly mammoth – which became extinct some 10,000 years ago – as hunters look for excavated skeletons so they can extract their tusks and sell them to ivory traders.

But the discovery of such well-preserved specimens has also led to fears that diseases the animals might have been carrying could be thawed with them and, unlike their hosts, survive the thawing.

Professor Claverie last year warned of ‘extremely good’ evidence that ‘you can revive bacteria from deep permafrost’.

He even discovered such a virus himself – pithovirus – which, when thawed from permafrost, began to attack and kill amoebas.

Although the pithovirus, which had been frozen for some 30,000 years before the experiment, is harmless to humans, Professor Claverie said it shows that viruses frozen long ago can ‘wake up’ and re-infect hosts.

Scientists disagree about the exact age of the Arctic ice sheet, the permafrost surrounding it, and thus the age of the objects it contains.

Pictured, elongated particle of a pithovirus (1.9 micrometers long) shows a single apical cork-like structure (white arrowhead)

Pictured, elongated particle of a pithovirus (1.9 micrometers long) shows a single apical cork-like structure (white arrowhead)

But most of the thawed discoveries discovered so far date from the last Ice Age, some 115,000 to 11,700 years ago.

In their research paper, Professor Claverie and colleagues say the release of live bacteria, or archaea, that have persisted in cryptobiosis in permafrost for millions of years is a potential ‘public health problem’.

“The situation would be much more disastrous in the case of plant, animal or human diseases caused by the revival of an old unknown virus,” they say.

“As sadly well documented by recent (and ongoing) pandemics, any new virus, even related to known families, almost always requires the development of very specific medical responses, such as new antivirals or vaccines.”

The Arctic is of course more sparsely populated than other parts of the world, but Professor Claverie said more people are now going there to mine resources such as gold and diamonds.

Unfortunately, the first step in mining these resources is to remove the top layers of permafrost, which exposes humans to viruses.

How long these viruses can remain infectious once exposed to outdoor conditions (UV light, oxygen, heat), and how likely they are to encounter and infect a suitable host in the meantime, is still impossible to estimate. says the team.

“But the risk will undoubtedly increase in the context of global warming as permafrost thawing continues to accelerate and more people populate the Arctic in the wake of industrial ventures.”

These nine viruses are further described in the new preprint document, which has yet to be peer reviewed bioRxiv server.

Last month, scientists warned that the likelihood of a virus “crossing over” to another species increases with the melting of glaciers — slow-moving rivers of ice.

Meltwater from the glaciers could carry pathogens to new hosts, potentially making parts of the Arctic “fertile ground for emerging pandemics.”

KILLER VIRUSES MAY BE RELEASED BY MELTING ICE IN THE POOL, STUDY WARNS

Glaciers melting amid rising global temperatures could be the cause of the next deadly pandemic, a study says.

Scientists have investigated how climate change may affect the risk of ‘spillover’ – a virus that jumps from one species to another – by examining samples from Lake Hazen in the Arctic.

Lake Hazen, seen from above in this NASA image, is the largest freshwater lake in the High Arctic in the world

Lake Hazen, seen from above in this NASA image, is the largest freshwater lake in the High Arctic in the world

They found that the likelihood of an overflow event increases with glacier melt because the meltwater can carry pathogens to new hosts.

A warming climate could bring viruses in the Arctic into contact with new environments and hosts, increasing the risk of this “viral spillover,” the experts warn.

“The risk of overflow increases with runoff from melting glaciers, a proxy for climate change,” say the researchers in their paper, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

“Should climate change also shift the species range of potential viral vectors and reservoirs northward, the High Arctic could become fertile ground for emerging pandemics.”

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