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Scientists discover 30,000-year-old giant virus in Siberia

Ian Harvey

Many secrets lie under the snows of Siberia, yet few could be as startling as the latest discovery – giant viruses. It may sound like something from a science fiction movie, yet these latest findings have been published in a groundbreaking study by the National Academy of Sciences. From just one sample extracted from the permafrost, scientists have uncovered two new viruses: the first, Pithovirus Sibericum, was identified last year, and a second virus known as Mollivirus Sibericum has become the latest find. Yet the question still remains: do these viruses pose a threat to the human race?

The simple answer to that question is “No”. According to information taken from an AFP Report, the work was carried out in secret in a high-security CDC lab. This report has classed both viruses as giant viruses, which means they can be easily seen using optical microscopes. The scientists who discovered the viruses, who work for Russian and French science institutions, have guaranteed that waking up the viruses will cause no danger to humans. They will be able to achieve this awakening by infecting a single celled ameba to serve as the viruses’ host.

Yet the truth is far from simple. In the words of Michel Claverie, co- author of the study, “A few viral particles that are still infectious may be enough, in the presence of a vulnerable host, to revive potentially pathogenic viruses.” He also said, “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 smallpox that we thought were eradicated.”

The Mollivirus is only the fourth known giant virus to be discovered, but all of them date way back to pre-historic times. Massive viruses isolated in 1992 from samples taken during a pneumonia outbreak indicated that these viruses were huge. For example, the Mimivirus had a massive 979 protein-encoding genes, far more than any normal virus – by contrast, the Influenza virus comes with a mere eight genes. This astounding contrast shows how these new viruses are the most complex ever known to man.

A) AFM image of several surface fibers attached to a common central feature B) AFM image of two detached surface fibers of Mimivirus C) CryoEM image of a whole Mimivirus D) AFM image of internal fibers of Mimivirus Source:By Xiao C, Kuznetsov YG, Sun S, Hafenstein SL, Kostyuchenko VA, et al. (2009) - Structural Studies of the Giant Mimivirus. PLoS Biol 7(4): e1000092. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1000092, CC BY 2.5,

A) AFM image of several surface fibers attached to a common central feature B) AFM image of two detached surface fibers of Mimivirus C) CryoEM image of a whole Mimivirus D) AFM image of internal fibers of Mimivirus Source:By Xiao C, Kuznetsov YG, Sun S, Hafenstein SL, Kostyuchenko VA, et al. (2009) – Structural Studies of the Giant Mimivirus. PLoS Biol 7(4): e1000092. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1000092, CC BY 2.5,

The next viruses to be discovered were the Megaviruses and Pandoraviruses, which were found by taking water samples in Chile and Australia. They offer the biggest viral genomes of 2556 protein-encoding genes. Yet despite the discovery of the new Siberian strains, these giant viruses are still not fully understood by scientists.

The data that scientists have gathered show that giant viruses are much more diverse than originally thought. Many more contagions could potentially be found under the Siberian ice, which is becoming increasingly threatened by rising global temperatures.

However, despite their reassurances, scientists have concluded that they cannot rule out a reemergence of ancient permafrost viruses from entering human or animal populations.