30,000-year-old virus from permafrost is reborn

Mar 03, 2014
An ultrathin section of a Pithovirus particle in an infected Acanthamoeba castellanii cell observed by transmission electron microscopy with enhancement using the artistic filter "plastic packaging" provided by Adobe Photoshop CS5. Credit: Julia Bartoli and Chantal Abergel, IGS and CNRS-AMU.

French scientists said Monday they had revived a giant but harmless virus that had been locked in the Siberian permafrost for more than 30,000 years.

Wakening the long-dormant serves as a warning that unknown pathogens entombed in may be roused by , they said.

Dubbed Pithovirus sibericum, the virus was found in a 30-metre (98-foot) -deep sample of permanently frozen soil taken from coastal tundra in Chukotka, near the East Siberia Sea, where the average annual temperature is minus 13.4 degrees Celsius (7.8 degrees Fahrenheit).

The team thawed the virus and watched it replicate in a culture in a petri dish, where it infected a simple single-cell organism called an amoeba.

Radiocarbon dating of the soil sample found that vegetation grew there more than 30,000 years ago, a time when mammoths and Neanderthals walked the Earth, according to a paper published in the US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

P. sibericum is, on the scale of viruses, a giant—it has 500 genes, whereas the has only eight.

It is the first in a new category of viral whoppers, a family known as Megaviridae, for which two other categories already exist.

An ultrathin section of a Pithovirus particle in an infected Acanthamoeba castellanii cell observed by transmission electron microscopy. The length of the particle is ~1.5 µm with a 0.5 µm diameter. Credit: Julia Bartoli and Chantal Abergel, IGS and CNRS-AMU.

The virus gets its name from "pithos," the ancient Greek word for a jar, as it comes in an amphora shape. It is so big (1.5 millionths of a metre) that it can be seen through an optical microscope, rather than the more powerful electron microscope.

Unlike the flu virus, though, P. sibericum is harmless to humans and animals, for it only infects a type of amoeba called Acanthamoeba, the researchers said.

The work shows that viruses can survive being locked up in the permafrost for extremely long periods, France's National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) said in a press statement.

"It has important implications for public-health risks in connection with exploiting mineral or energy resources in Arctic Circle regions that are becoming more and more accessible through global warming," it said.

"The revival of viruses that are considered to have been eradicated, such as the , whose replication process is similar to that of Pithovirus, is no longer limited to science fiction.

"The risk that this scenario could happen in real life has to be viewed realistically."

Explore further: Explainer: What is a virus?

More information: "Thirty-thousand-year-old distant relative of giant icosahedral DNA viruses with a Pandoravirus morphology," by Matthieu Legendre et al. www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1320670111

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User comments : 6

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jyro
2 / 5 (4) Mar 03, 2014
I can see it now, different virus reawakening names, Mothra, Rodan and Godzilla.
NeutronicallyRepulsive
1 / 5 (3) Mar 04, 2014
I think this is another proof that viruses are just chemical particles. No need to "bring them to life". It's just pure chemistry/physics to heat them for chemistry to start working again. I wouldn't be surprised if hundred million years old virus was "reactivated" (except there just might not be a cell for him to infect).
Kedas
3 / 5 (4) Mar 04, 2014
I just don't like it being called harmless since we don't know much about it.
It's like calling an small animal harmless until it's doing something you didn't expect.
dedereu
not rated yet Mar 04, 2014
Another proof that life is just chemical.
Modernmystic
5 / 5 (5) Mar 04, 2014
Another proof that life is just chemical.


How seriously should we take a statement from merely a bunch of chemicals?
russell_russell
not rated yet Mar 09, 2014
Growth and replication.
Whatever the host, viruses have either refused or relinquished the two processes listed above.

Of course the words "refused"/"relinquished" is a hopeless/hapless choice of meaning.
Somehow the importance of (organic) information is greater than growth and replication.