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Sep 14, 2015

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Evoking visions of mad scientists, French researchers are set to revive a mega-virus dormant for 30,000 years that they discovered in the permafrost of the Russian Arctic.

The researchers, from the French National Center for Scientific Research, say they will take precautions to revive the specimen under safe laboratory conditions. They published a paper detailing their research in the journal the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The group of researchers is headed by Jean-Michel Claverie, who runs a laboratory at the French center.

American scientists revived the Spanish Flu virus in 2004 to try to understand its extreme virulence. That virus killed tens of millions of people. The researchers went to Alaska and took samples of lung tissue from a woman who had been buried in permafrost. Using those samples and autopsy tissues, these U.S. scientists pieced together the code for the eight genes. The scientists did the work at what ABC.net calls a “top-security” laboratory of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia.

The French scientists, who awakened another Siberian virus, known as Pithovirus sibericum, in a petri dish in the lab in 2013, warn that climate change may awaken dangerous viruses in areas of the far north where soil or permafrost is melting and believe it is better to ‘know the enemy’. They found it near the same area as the latest discovery, which they named Mollivirus sibericum.

This is the fourth prehistoric virus found since 2003.

Perhaps the most ground-breaking aspect of the research from 2013 and 2015 is the fact that these Siberian viruses don’t resemble any other virus known on Earth. Modern viruses are tiny and have only a few genes. But Pithovirus sibericum and Mollivirus sibericum contain 500 genes, placing it in a new category of viral giant, a family known as Megaviridae. “Sixty percent of its gene content doesn’t resemble anything on Earth,” said Chantal Abergel, a fellow researcher and wife of Claverie.

Another virus, found in 2003, Pandoravirus, has 2,500 genes. In comparison, the HIV virus has only 12, and Influenza A has eight.

The French researchers call the two viruses they found giant viruses. To qualify as a giant virus it has to be more than a half-micron long—1/1000th of a millimeter.

Pithovirus sibericum is infectious to amoebas but does not appear harmful to human cells, the researchers said. It was found in a 100-foot-deep sample of permanently frozen soil taken from coastal tundra in Chukotka, near the East Siberian Sea.

When they announced the finding of the first virus in 2013, Claverie said: “The revival of viruses that are considered to have been eradicated, such as smallpox, whose replication process is similar to that of Pithovirus, is no longer limited to science fiction. The risk that this scenario could happen in real life has to be viewed realistically.”

Exploration of the Siberian permafrost is expected to increase as it is thought to contain 30 percent of the world’s oil reserves, gold deposits and other key minerals. There is therefore a danger that viruses which humans have never encountered before, and have no immunity to, could emerge from the ice. Claverie called for safeguards against awakening viruses that were once dangerous, such as smallpox.

Ian Branam, a spokesman with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, responded to questions about precautions and safety around virus reanimation. He said in e-mail to Ancient Origins that protocols vary around the world but added:

“Precautions taken include personal protective equipment such as gowns, masks, gloves, shoe covering, etc. Powered respirators are often required as are shower-out procedures when exiting the lab. The lab itself needs to be limited access in a secure facility and have negative air pressure so flow is always into the lab when doors are opened. Waste is sterilized before removal and exhaust air is filtered. Personnel are monitored for any potential symptoms of infection and usually can be asked to record viral signs or check in one or more times a day to confirm no symptoms (fever, etc.)”

CDC technician dons an older-model positive-pressure suit before entering one of the CDC’s earlier maximum containment labs.

CDC technician dons an older-model positive-pressure suit before entering one of the CDC’s earlier maximum containment labs. (Wikipedia)

When asked how the French scientists could know if the Siberian virus could infect amoebas but not humans, he replied: “Without knowledge of the specifics, it could be because contemporary viruses like it infect amoeba. When obtained, experiments will probably be conducted to see if it is infectious for other organisms using cell lines and possibly animal models if infectivity is suspected on the basis of the in vitro cell lines.”

Featured image: Main: NASA researchers working on the Arctic ice (NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre / Flickr). Inset: Mollivirus sibericum particle (Photo: PNAS)

By Mark Miller

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