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Last month, researchers announced they were studying a 30,000-year-old giant virus called Mollivirus sibericum that they found in melted Siberian permafrost. The virus was functional and able to infect amoeba.
This isn't the first time researchers have found big viruses that have challenged what we thought we knew about the tiny invaders. Mimivirus, discovered in 2003, has 1,200 genes and is twice the width of traditional viruses.
But it was this most recently discovered virus which prompted several outlets to suggest that once it thawed out, it could escape and make lots of people sick.
We recently chatted with New York Times columnist and "A Planet of Viruses" author Carl Zimmer to see what he thought about the discovery. In terms of its potential risk to people, he said we don't need to be concerned.
originally posted by: WhiteHat
So not much of a doom porn if is not affecting us.
On the other side if it affects amoebas and then zombie amoebas comes for us ...
So, these are living viruses. That's a switch! Seems to me that might give them some additional capabilities in terms of adapting to their new environment.
Viruses are technically not considered alive, but these giant viruses do seem to have some of the qualities of being alive, like a functioning metabolism. If we're ever going to rethink the characteristics of viruses, these giant thawed-out viruses will be the ones to make us do it.
In terms of gene transfer, their genome has a lot to choose from. I'm sure there's got to be some nasty stuff hiding in there somewhere. After a little bit of horizontal gene transfer with Bird Flu, or Ebola, we'll get something really fun.
In addition to its unusual size, Mollivirus sibericum has other components which separate it from the vast majority of viruses. It has more than 500 genes, for example, which give the virus instructions for making proteins. By contrast, HIV has just nine genes.
The authors of the paper worry that while the few ancient viruses identified in the permafrost sample don't appear to be harmful to humans (they haven't found varieties of small pox or herpes), others might not be so benign.
There is a concern that rising temperatures and melting ice--not to mention oil exploration in the Arctic--could see the reappearance of ancient deadly viruses.
"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," one of the lead researchers, Jean-Michel Claverie, told AFP.
And it isn't just giant viruses found in the colder regions of the world. Small viruses were recently discovered in arctic lakes. It looks like all kinds of infection-causing viruses could defrost as the world warms.
The fact that two different viruses retain their infectivity in prehistorical permafrost layers should be of concern in a context of global warming. Giant viruses’ diversity remains to be fully explored.