Global warming is heating the Arctic at more than twice the global average. That's bad news for a lot of reasons, but among them is that as the permafrost melts, the ancient landscape that is being exposed is releasing some of its deadly secrets — secrets that have otherwise remained hidden, trapped in ice for tens of thousands of years.
Case in point, researchers have recently unearthed several giant, prehistoric viruses from the frozen wastelands of Siberia, the latest of which they intend to revive from its icy slumber in the lab, reports Phys.org.
It sounds like a terrible idea: the reanimation of a deadly primeval outbreak. But the scientists insist that by reviving this virus, they might glean important data on these ancient pathogens, more of which are almost certain to be exposed by the rapidly melting landscape of the Arctic.
Scientists also promise to verify that the bug cannot cause animal or human disease before resurrecting it. Even so, the mere possibility that an ancient disease could be thawed from softening permafrost is a forbidding proposition.
"A few viral particles that are still infectious may be enough, in the presence of a vulnerable host, to revive potentially pathogenic viruses," said one of the lead researchers, Jean-Michel Claverie.
This virus, a 30,000-year-old relic, is being classified as Mollivirus sibericum. It is the fourth so-called "giant" prehistoric virus found since 2003. It comes in at 0.6 microns, which is large enough to be seen with a light microscope. Most viruses circulating today are much smaller.
These ancient viruses are also more complex than many modern ones. For instance, M. sibericum has more than 500 genes, and some other giant prehistoric viruses have been found with an excess of 2,500 genes. By contrast, the modern Influenza A virus has only eight genes. So studying these ancient viruses could also provide valuable hints about virus evolution.
Although the likelihood that M. sibericum is deadly to humans is small, scientists warn that as permafrost continues to melt, the chances of a deadly strain being resurrected increases. This is especially true as we continue to industrialize the Arctic and mine it for resources, thus increasing our chances for exposure to these ancient afflictions.
"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 small pox that we thought were eradicated," added Claverie.