Back from the Dead – An Ancient Virus Returns

Although it may sound like something out of a horror film, a 30,000 year old virus has been resurrected.

But don’t worry, we aren’t all done for – yet.

A study published in a science journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reveals that an old virus that was trapped in ice was released and brought back to life.

However, the researchers who discovered the virus say there is no reason to worry as it cannot affect humans or animals and that it is only capable of attacking amoeba.

Trapped in the vast layers of Siberian permafrost, Pithovirus sibericum was found approximately 30 meters within the snow.

The size of the virus is particularly staggering as it measures 1.5 micrometers in length, which is the largest that has ever been seen.

Pithovirus sibericum is part of a category of ‘giant viruses’ that have not been active for over 30,000 years and the class of virus was only unearthed 10 years ago. Its size is so relatively massive, that it can be viewed using a regular microscope as opposed to modern day viruses which can only be seen using an electron microscope which is costly and not usually available in biology labs.

Although the virus has essentially been asleep for 30,000 years, while running tests in the lab it came back to life. The tests revealed that it can only attack single cell organisms.

One of the researchers who made this discovery, Dr Chantal Abergel, describes the process in which the virus works, “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.”

Future

While this virus may not harm any people, others might. This is a growing concern amongst the researchers of this project and to other scientists who have followed the news of this tiny giant.

As the permafrost is constantly shrinking, more viruses like Pithovirus sibericum may be released back into the atmosphere.

While many have their doubts that another virus could be as durable as the Pithovirus, others cannot rule it out as a possibility. Some even fear that recently eradicated viruses may return.

Professor Jean-Michel Claverie, a co-author on the paper, said, “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.”

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