Giant Active 30,000-Year-Old Virus Resurrected from Siberian Permafrost

First Posted: Mar 04, 2014 06:48 AM EST

A mysterious oval shaped giant virus trapped inside the Siberian permafrost for nearly 30,000 years has finally been resurrected, according to a latest finding. The virus is active.

The discovery of the new virus dubbed Pithovirus Sibericum, was led by evolutionary biologists Jean and Michel Claverie from the National Centre of Scientific Research (CNRS) at the University of Aix-Marseille, and colleagues.

In recent years the duo had successfully discovered a host of giant viruses.

Discovered from a sample of frozen soil retrieved from a depth of 98 feet in Chukotka near the  East Siberia Sea in Russia, the ancient virus is still active but harmless to humans. It infects only a type of amoeba called Acanthomeba, a single celled pathogen. The annual temperature in the finding area remains minus 13.4 degree Celsius, AFP reports.

Radiocarbon dating of the sample confirmed that the virus is 30,000 years old  and from times when Neanderthals were the dominant species.

"There is now a non-zero probability that the pathogenic microbes that bothered [ancient human populations] could be revived and most likely infect us as well," study co-author Jean-Michel Claverie, a bioinformatics researcher at Aix-Marseille University in France, wrote in an email to LiveScience. "Those pathogens could be banal bacteria (curable with antibiotics) or resistant bacteria or nasty viruses. If they have been extinct for a long time, then our immune system is no longer prepared to respond to them."

The giant virus P.Sibericum can be easily viewed using a light microscope and consists of 500 genes when compared to the influenza virus that has just eight.

This ancient virus measuring 1.5 micrometers long by 0.5 micrometers wide, is 30 percent larger than the modern known virus, pandoravirus, according to IB Times.

"Among known viruses, the giant viruses tend to be very tough, almost impossible to break open," Claverie told National Geographic. "Special environments such as deep ocean sediments and permafrost are very good preservers of microbes because they are cold, anoxic [lacking oxygen], and in the dark."

With the rise in climate warming and permafrost melt, the finding of the giant virus raises the likelihood of ancient dormant viruses being revived in the Arctic.

The finding was documented in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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