JUL 17, 2015 2:40 PM PDT

Giant Viruses And The Melting Permafrost: Fiction Highlights Real Threat

WRITTEN BY: Kara Marker
On a morning in March 2014, the South China Morning Post reported the discovery of a Megavirus, recovered from the ancient depths of the Siberian ice. Megavirus is one of a few recently discovered giant viruses, encoding more proteins and exhibiting larger diameters than any virus discovered to date. Fortunately, this particular pathogen only infects amoeba, not humans. However, the scientists who cultured the virus in the lab are worried that the next time a virus is disturbed and uncovered from its icy resting spot of a hundred thousand years, we won't be so lucky.


In her thrilling and engaging novel "The Laptev Virus," Dr. Christy Esmahan brings to life the real danger of stumbling upon dormant viruses when drilling for oil in Siberian ice. The story depicts the aftermath of a freak accident that endangers an oil drilling crew by exposing them to a previously unknown, lethal Megavirus. Esmahan explains the elaborate response of research efforts to find a cure and prevent further outbreaks of the Laptev infection, reminiscent of current epidemiological endeavors in the fights against HIV and Ebola.

Author Esmahan first earned her doctorate at the Universidad de Leon in Spain, studying penicillin production in mutant strains of Penicillium chrysogenum. Esmahan discovered an enzyme that produces a compound "since been found to have anticancer properties and is still being studied today." The Laptev Virus is Esmahan's fourth novel, but her first in the science fiction genre.

In the novel, Laptev's method of transmission and lethality are compared to that of the Ebola virus. At one point, the main character and lead scientist for the cure to Laptev, Sarah Spallanzani, reminds her research team that Laptev's fatality rate is 65% more lethal than Ebola and "much more contagious than HIV." Interweaving discussion of current viruses in science research at different points in the story is Esmahan's specialty, greatly enhancing the realistic nature of the novel. Spallanzani's team was working on HIV research before being instructed to switch to studying the Laptev Virus. Esmahan used this opportunity to describe HIV viruses in a refreshingly unique way, comparing their target of infection, the white blood cells, to an "invading army only targeting police departments."

The virus from Esmahan's science fiction novel is depicted as mysterious and lethal. Other than simply being bigger than most viruses, what makes Megavirus so much more dangerous? Well, larger viruses mean significantly more proteins produced during infection of a host, potentially diversifying the impact of an infection to the point of extreme harm on host health (PNAS). Essentially, the ability of a giant virus to produce more proteins means it has more resources to produce a variety of different virulence factors.

In addition to the ominous suggestion of uncovering dangerous viruses in previously frozen soil, The Laptev Virus also emphasizes the impact of global warming on the thawing of the permafrost. As global temperatures increase, increasing amounts of carbon are released from the melting soil of the permafrost, which had been previously frozen for hundreds of thousands of years. The soil erodes into the ocean upon melting, the carbon reacts with oxygen in the ocean water, and carbon dioxide is formed and released into the atmosphere (ScienceNordic). So, potentially uncovering dangerous viruses is not our only problem by far.

Is Esmahan's "The Laptev Virus" a warning of potential future epidemics? It's possible. Researchers at the Aix-Marseille University in France are certainly convinced: "With global warming making northern reaches more accessible, the chance of disturbing dormant human pathogens [has] increased." This group from France was the first ever to discover a giant virus, named Mimivirus and measuring a whopping 750 nanometers (if this doesn't seem impressive to you, keep in mind that most viruses have diameters between 20 and 300 nanometers). They are also responsible for the discovery of the March 2014 Siberian Megavirus, although this recent pathogen's genome encodes 13% more proteins than Mimivirus (Virology Blog).

Microbiology professor and lead researcher in the France study, Jean-Michel Claverie, "would not be surprised" if dangerous, older forms of known viruses were also found in the ground, smallpox for example. Scientists like Claverie can only imagine what kind of destruction recovering a virus like smallpox could bring to a world population that claimed victory over the pathogen decades ago. Although her novel is fiction, Esmahan points out the reality of reemerging viruses: "We know that viruses can still be viable even after being frozen for 30,000 years, perhaps more. So it's probably just a matter of time until a human pathogen is discovered."

Sources: Dr. Christy Esmahan, South China Morning Post, ScienceNordic.com, Virology Blog

Legendre M, Bartoli J, Shmakova L, Jeudy S, Labadie K, Adrait A, Lescot M, Poirot O, Bertaux L, Bruley C, Coute Y, Rivkina E, Abergel C, Claverie JM. 2014. Thirty-thousand-year-old distant relative of giant icosahedral DNA viruses with a pandoravirus morphology. Proc Natl Acad SciUSA 111:4274 -4279. http://dx.doi.org/10 .1073/pnas.1320670111.
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: ScienceKara.com.
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