Viruses are a scary thing, obviously, and with modern technology we’re able to create vaccinations that prevent us from becoming ill, but what happens when an ancient virus is discovered that we have little to no knowledge of? Over 30,000 years ago a squirrel stored away fruit seeds in the Siberian permafrost, only to be just recently discovered. Russian scientists regenerated the seeds into full flowering plants and discovered an ancient virus (Mollivirus sibericum) in the soil. The name Mollivirus sibericum comes from the French word Molli—meaning soft or flexible, and Sibericum for the location it was found in. Jean-Michel Claverie, professor of medical genomics and bioinformatics at the University of Mediterranean School of Medicine in Marseille, France, stumbled upon research on reviving a plant from an ancient seed, and launched collaboration between Russian and French research teams to see what else they would find. Claverie’s team received the sample and was sure to not expose the virus to any animals or humans, as they did not know what this virus could result in.
“We’re not stupid enough to revive a virus that may pose a threat to human health,” Claverie says. “We use amoeba as bait to fish out whatever viruses may be in that specific sample.” The type of amoeba used is typically found in infected contact lens, the team grew them and mixed them with parts of the permafrost in a petri dish. Nothing usually happened, but every once in a while, they’d see one of them die, using this technique they knew which to isolate from the others. This led to several discoveries—Mollivirus sibericum is the latest of four giant viruses found so far (they are called “giant” viruses because you’re able to see them under a microscope, like bacteria, and it has a large number of genes). “It was a very low concentration of these viruses that infected the amoeba. If you think about it, it’s really scary that only a handful of particles might be sufficient enough to start an epidemic.” Claverie says. This is why Claverie and his team express concern about anyone venturing into the permafrost.
New maritime routes created by climate change have increased the number of companies mining for gold. Claverie and his team worry about the increase in gold mining along the northern coast of Siberia. Companies will excavate millions of tons of permafrost; unknowingly unleash whatever is hiding beneath the layers. But whatever is under there could also uncover a new understanding of metabolic pathways (series of chemical reactions occurring within the cell) and biochemical processes, which could lead to the creation of new drugs and biotechnology or maybe something even bigger, Claverie wrote, “Part of what we don’t know might turn out to contain the explanation to fundamental questions such as the origin of life on our planet.” Claverie also states this virus could contain the potential to cure rare eye diseases. As stated before the virus has been killing off the amoeba, this makes the virus more study worthy, to test out if it can in fact cure Acanthamobea keratitis (the infection used for the examination).