30,000 Year Old Giant Virus Defrosted from Siberian Permafrost – Still Infectious

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No I didn’t prepare this report on the first of April but it can certainly be classified as one of my many viral internet articles. Regular visitors to the site who are aware of my academic background (yes – many years studying Bacteriology and Virology in the Medical School at Manchester University!) will know I have a weakness for microbial breakthroughs. The information I am about to share with you is hot off the press and is taking the microbiology world by storm.

I came across the news as I searched the mainland European Press for exciting scientific developments. This particular piece of research was carried out by Matthieu Legendre and Julia Bartoli at the University of Aix-Marseille and is published in the current edition of the scientific journal PNAS.

These scientists reported the discovery of a giant virus when they melted ice from a bore sample taken from the Permafrost in Siberia. The position of the sample, 30 metres deep, and radiocarbon dating indicated that the virus was over 30,000 years old. It was a previously undiscovered organism, being much larger than other recently identified large viruses. The new organism has been named Pithovirus sibericum and is 1.5 microns in length. Just to put this into perspective, viruses are normally very simple organisms requiring the cell’s of other organisms to replicate. As a result they are generally very small and a typical host cell, like a bacterium, measures about a micron or less. Therefore a 1.5 micron virus is huge.

This particular virus infects Amoeba, or Acanthamoeba to use their full name. Only in the last 10 years have two other types of large virus been identified. These also infect Acanthamoeba, one which is 0.7 microns (the Megaviridae) and the other is the 1 micron Pandoravirus whose DNA contains the information for 1000 proteins. This indicates considerably more complexity than has typically been seen in viruses. These two types of virus were already incredibly large, it is not surprising they where christened using names like ‘mega‘ and ‘pandora’. They are about 30 times larger than the typical virus.

The new virus is far larger than even these other mega viruses although it contains less DNA than the Pandoravirus.

The scientists introduced a kind of stimulant to the new virus to see if it could be enticed to infect a typical host amoeba. Incredibly after more then 30,000 years buried deep in the Permafrost where the average temperature is minus 13C, this giant virus was found to still be infectious. It was capable of killing the host ameoba.

Currently we know very little about these giant viruses. We don’t know where their normal habitats are to be found, and apart from Amoebas, what other organisms might be infected by them, including of course humans. So far only these three types have been identified. They are probably much more widely distributed across the planet than these few samples would imply. In addition to the Siberian Permafrost the other samples came from locations as far apart as 10 metres deep off the coast of Chile and in a pond near Melbourne, Australia.

Another startling feature of these new giant viruses is that their genes have not previously been identified in other types of virus. They are totally novel.

In their research paper the scientists who discovered this latest giant virus also raised another issue which should give us all cause for concern. With global climate change it is quite possible that more infectious organisms could be released from their deep frozen incarceration as the permafrost melts. If this happens no-one knows what kind of microbes could be released into the environment, and what kind of threats they might hold in store for other organisms or even mankind.

To quote the authors of this latest piece of work: “The revival of such an ancestral amoeba-infecting virus used as a safe indicator of the possible presence of pathogenic DNA viruses, suggests that the thawing of permafrost either from global warming or industrial exploitation of circumpolar regions might not be exempt from future threats to human or animal health.” ….in other words – if we wait long enough we will not need scientists to defrost and resuscitate these pathogens, global warming will do that for us.

If you would like to take a look at the original article produced by Matthieu Legendre and Julia Bartoli in the latest PNAS you can find it in the link here.

For German speaking visitors to this site the German language article found here may be of interest.

If this kind of information interests you please visit this site again and look for the Alpine News section.

Chris Duggleby      

For other articles on similar subjects please use the links below:

7th April 2013: Could the deadly H7N9 Bird Flu influenza A virus identified in China lead to a pandemic? How does it differ from other Bird Flu viruses like H5N1? Should I travel to China and what precautions can I take?

10th March 2013: New Killer Corona Virus – could it turn into another SARS (or worse)?  

29th December 2012: Spreading diarrhea and vomit through the washing machine – The Norovirus propagator in our kitchen 

18th August 2012: Polar Bear dies of Encephalitis after catching Herpes from a Zebra in Wuppertal Zoo near Düsseldorf 

11th August 2012: Do you have killer rats/mice in your cellar? Over 2000 people attacked in Germany so far this year (Hantavirus Infections at record levels) 

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