It’s alive! Or that’s what scientists might say when they reanimate the so-called “frankenvirus,” a 30,000-year-old giant virus that was discovered in Siberia. The French researchers behind the find – published this week in PNAS, the journal from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences – warn that climate change could reawaken dangerous microscopic pathogens, reports Agence France-Presse.
Since 2003, the virus, known as Mollivirus sibericum, is the fourth kind of prehistoric virus unearthed overall, and the second one discovered by the research team.
The scientists made it clear that they must assess whether the virus could lead to diseases that are dangerous to humans or animals before they “wake it up.”
“A few particles that are still infectious may be enough, in the presence of a vulnerable host, to revive potentially pathogenic viruses,” said Jean-Michel Claverie, one of the lead researchers.
A giant virus has to be longer than half a micron, which is 0.00002 of an inch. By comparison, Mollivirus sibericum, clocks in at 0.6 microns, buried in the permafrost coating northeastern Russia.
Claverie warned that those seeking natural resources like oil in the region must be wary of these large, ancient viruses.
“If we are not careful, and we industrialize these areas without putting safeguards in place, we run the risk of one day waking up viruses such as small pox that we thought were eradicated,” he warned.
Interestingly, these ancient viruses are more complex genetic specimens than their modern counterparts.
Mollivirus sibericum contains more than 500 genes, which pales in comparison to the 2,500 genes belonging to a family of giant virus discovered in 2003. The modern flu – Influenza A – only has eight genes.
The main question surrounding this research is, of course, why? As the climate warms up and the permafrost in Siberia, for instance, starts to increasingly melt, the danger that similar viruses could be released is more of a possibility. For the French research team, studying Mollivirus sibericum could offer a clue to understanding these viruses more.