SEP 14, 2015 7:40 AM PDT

A "Frankenvirus" Was Recovered From the Melting Permafrost - What Could Be Next?

WRITTEN BY: Kara Marker
Last week, a giant virus was recovered from the permafrost in northeastern Russia by a French team lead by Dr. Jean-Michel Claverie. The virus, named Mollivirus sibericum, measured in at 0.6 microns (to be classified as "giant" a virus must be at least 0.5 microns). Before "awakening" the virus, Dr. Claverie and his group must determine whether it could pose a threat. 

Melting soils of the arctic and an electron micrograph of M. sibericum
The melting permafrost has been an intensely debated issue for some time. At the end of August, the world's leaders met at the Conference on Global Leadership in the Arctic: Cooperation, Innovation, Engagement and Resilience in Alaska, and scientists strongly advised them to take action in preventing irreversible damage to the permafrost. There's no telling what kinds of dangerous pathogens there are that are waiting to be uncovered as the ancient soil slowly melts after being frozen for thousands of years.

In addition, the melting permafrost exacerbates the looming problem of global warming. Global temperatures continue to increase from the over-utilization of fossil fuels. The global temperature increase only worsens when larger amounts of carbon are released from the melting soil of the permafrost. The soil erodes into the ocean, and the carbon reacts with oxygen in the ocean water, forming CO2 and sending it into the atmosphere (ScienceNordic). This vicious cycle seems to be on the verge of causing irreversible damage to the environment, and many scientists are seeking immediate action to prevent the disastrous consequences of ignoring the problem. 

Thawing permafrost
Claverie and his team plan to revive M. sibericum in an experimental host, a single-celled amoeba. So far, the only viruses uncovered from the melting permafrost have not been a threat to humans. These viruses have only been amoeba-infecting. However, the possibility of uncovering dangerous, human-infecting pathogens is still very real. Last year, author and molecular biologist Dr. Christy Esmahan described this chilling potential reality in her science fiction novel, The Laptev Virus

In 2004, the Influenza A virus was uncovered from Alaskan permafrost via frozen lung tissues. American scientists revived this virus carefully in a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lab. Influenza A, also known as the Spanish Flu, killed millions of people in a 1918 pandemic. This virus has 8 genes; M. sibericum has 500. This vast genetic difference could mean a lot of things. M. sibericum is much more complex than regular, smaller viruses like Influenza A. With more genes, M. sibericum can make more kinds of proteins, and potentially more products to make it much more virulent than other viruses with less genes. 

Only time will tell how M. sibericum will behave, if it will stay in its amoeba host or if it proves to be capable of occupying other hosts as well. 

Watch the video below to learn more about the melting permafrost and the discovery of Claverie's first giant virus, Pithovirus sibericum.

About the Author
  • I am a scientific journalist and enthusiast, especially in the realm of biomedicine. I am passionate about conveying the truth in scientific phenomena and subsequently improving health and public awareness. Sometimes scientific research needs a translator to effectively communicate the scientific jargon present in significant findings. I plan to be that translating communicator, and I hope to decrease the spread of misrepresented scientific phenomena! Check out my science blog:
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