Scientists ‘awaken’ microorganisms that existed for nearly 50,000 years in Siberian permafrost

The future of humanity may be about to face one of the gravest dangers ever imagined. The root of such a serious situation must be the awakening of 13 prehistoric viruses that inhabit the Siberian permafrost. These “zombie viruses” have been frozen for about 50,000 years.

But that’s not all, it’s possible that more prehistoric viruses will resurrect from the ice as the planet continues to warm. True, the main cause of this alarm is related to climate change and the melting of Siberian permafrost layers.

In addition to global warming, there is another cause linked to this fact, it is the group of scientists – Russians, Germans and French – who decided awaken the 13 prehistoric viruses.

Why did they do it? Beyond the logical answer, the latent risk of facing a totally unknown bacteriological scenario remains in the air.

The researchers took samples of permafrost in Siberia, as well as on the Kamchatka Peninsula. After analyzing the samples, they previously characterized 13 viruses and subsequently they were able to revive sevenwhich were then cultured for sequencing of genome viral.

As a result, they established that the majority (4) of the viruses belong to the giant genus “Pandoravirus” and had not been discovered so far, while three others belong to the families “Mimiviridae” and “Pithoviridae”. All infect amoebas and are the largest of these pathogens.

Pandoravirus seen under a microscope. Credit: IGS/CNRS-AMU.

Prehistoric viruses: do they represent a potential threat to life?

The 13 prehistoric Siberian permafrost viruses, if they could pose a potential threat to human life, as many are active; besides are capable of infecting other organic beings. Therefore, the scientists responsible for this research consider it “essential to continue to do more studies to assess the impact of these infectious agents”.

The samples were taken from different sources in freezing Siberia, for example, they were extracted from the intestines of a wolf, from the bottom of a lake and even from the wool of a mammoth. After the respective analyzes conducted on the powerful evidence collected by the researchers, the results shocked the group of scientists.

According to experts, one of the isolated viruses still showed signs of infection, despite being 48,500,000 years old deep in Siberian permafrost.

Jean-Michel Claverie, one of the authors of the research and professor of genomics and bioinformatics at the Faculty of Medicine of Aix-Marseille University, said that “48,500 years is a world record”.

The harmfulness of these pathogens is completely unknown, which is why scientists continue to justify the importance of studying them.

A large amount of frozen organic matter is released

Apparently, the effects of climate change go beyond what science imagines, because irreversible thawing of Siberian permafrost has begun release organic matter that has been frozen for thousands of years. Including a number of prehistoric viruses, recently activated by various scientists.

How would viruses affect humanity? As part of this research, experts pose two hypothetical scenarios of good and bad news for public health. The positive side is linked to the development of sophisticated technologies -by science- to fight against different types of bacterial infections.

At best, we expect that there is the possibility of effectively and quickly counteracting certain infectious outbreak caused by prehistoric viruses, only if known. For this, modern antibiotics are available, recently developed to deal with one of the deadliest pandemics that has devastated humanity.

However, the other scenario may not be so encouraging, rather it represents a dangerous challenge, both for science and for humanity. Because when it comes to a totally unknown ancient pathogenthe scientific answer would take time to arrive to control possible diseases of plants, animals and humans.

Prehistoric viruses and their ability to survive

Even if heAlarms went off all over the world, after hearing the news of prehistoric “zombie” viruses, scientists remain calm and hope that another pandemic will not occur. They consider it unlikely that ancient infectious agents could survive contact with the environment.

Thawing permafrost will release carbon and potentially also long-dormant ancient viruses. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Charles Miller.

At present, it is difficult to determine the possibility that prehistoric viruses continue to be active for a long time, while being exposed to current climatic conditions of light, heat, UV rays and oxygen. Nor is it possible to establish that pathogens can find a host ideal to guarantee its continuity.

You might also be interested in: They plan to “revive” the extinct woolly mammoth within 4 years.

But scientists agree the existence of a latent risk induced by climate change coupled with to a greater human presence in the Siberian permafrost. Over the years, the thaw in parts of Siberia will continue to accelerate, attracting more and more people to the region for various reasons, industrial or scientific.

At the moment, Siberian permafrost continues to slowly melt, hopefully that scientists do not awaken more prehistoric viruses that could put in endanger our health and the life of the planet.

Research is available at bioRxiv.

References: Science Alert/Live Science.

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