Scientists resurrected a 48,500-year-old ‘zombie’ virus in permafrost and found it was still infectious.
The virus has been tested in amoebae but could indicate more dangerous viruses lurking in permafrost.
Some scientists fear that the thawing of permafrost by climate change could reawaken ancient viruses.
From a horror movie plot to real life: Scientists have revived ancient permafrost “zombie” viruses and found they can still infect living single-celled amoebae. The chances of these viruses infecting animals or humans are unclear, but the researchers say permafrost viruses should be considered a public health threat.
Permafrost is a layer of ground that remains completely frozen all year round – at least before, before human activities begin to raise global temperatures. It covers 15% of the land in the northern hemisphere.
Due to climate change, however, the permafrost is rapidly melting, unearthing a host of ancient relics ranging from viruses and bacteria to woolly mammoths and an immaculately preserved cave bear.
According to CNN, French professor Jean-Michel Claverie found strains of the 48,000-year-old frozen virus in a few permafrost sites in Siberia. The oldest strain, which was 48,500 years old, came from a soil sample from an underground lake, while the youngest samples were 27,000 years old. One of the young specimens was discovered in the carcass of a woolly mammoth.
Some scientists fear that as climate change warms the Arctic, melting permafrost could release ancient viruses that haven’t come into contact with living things for thousands of years. As such, plants, animals and humans might not be immune to them.
“You have to remember that our immune defense was developed in close contact with a microbiological environment,” Birgitta Evengård, professor emeritus in the Department of Clinical Microbiology at Umea University in Sweden, told CNN.
“If there’s a virus lurking in the permafrost that we haven’t come into contact with for thousands of years, maybe our immune defense isn’t strong enough,” he said. she adds. “It’s okay to have respect for the situation and to be proactive and not just reactive. And the way to fight fear is to have knowledge.”
How ‘zombie’ viruses could infect hosts once they emerge
This isn’t the first time Claverie has revived ancient viruses, or “zombie viruses” as he calls them. He has been publishing research on this topic since 2014 and says that beyond his work, very few researchers take these viruses seriously.
“This erroneously suggests that such events are rare and that ‘zombie viruses’ do not pose a threat to public health,” Claverie and colleagues report in their latest paper published Feb. 18 in the journal Viruses.
In this study, Claverie and his team were able to revive several new strains of “zombie” viruses and found that each could still infect cultured amoebas – a feat, Claverie said, that should be considered both a scientific curiosity and a concerned public. health threat.
“We consider these amoeba-infecting viruses to be surrogates for all other possible viruses that could be found in permafrost,” he told CNN. “We see the traces of many, many, many other viruses. So we know they are there. We don’t know for sure that they are still alive. But our reasoning is that if amoeba viruses are still alive, there’s no reason other viruses won’t still be alive and able to infect their own hosts.”
Current research on frozen viruses like Claverie’s “zombie” virus is helping scientists better understand how these ancient viruses work and whether or not they could infect animals or humans.
Ancient bacteria like anthrax may already be coming back alive
It’s not just viruses. Ancient bacteria could also be released and reactivated for the first time in up to two million years when permafrost thaws.
That’s what happened, scientists believe, when outbreaks of bacterial anthrax infection appeared in humans and reindeer in Siberia in 2016.
This could be a “more immediate public health concern,” according to Calverie’s article.
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