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Scientists Warn Climate Change Could Wake Ancient Pathogens

September 11, 2015
Environmental Protection

graveyard-permafrostFrench researchers who discovered a 30,000 year old ‘giant’ virus in permafrost in Siberia have warned that other pathogens could be released by the effects of global warming. Arctic and sub-arctic regions have been shown to be melting at twice the global average, giving rise to the prospect of more virus strains trapped in permafrost being released.

The virus (named Mollivirus sibericum, meaning ‘the soft virus from Siberia’) is one of four prehistoric microbes to be discovered in the past 15 years. Scientists now intend to reanimate the virus under controlled conditions, a process lead researcher Jean-Michele Claverie admits will require close monitoring. “A few viral particles that are still infections may be enough, in the presence of a vulnerable host, to revive potentially pathogenic viruses,” Claverie said. “If we are not careful, and we industrialise 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.”

In 2013 the same team was successful in reviving another giant virus. The microbe, which they identified as Pithovirus sibericum, was managed in Claverie’s lab at France’s National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), and found in the same location as their most recent specimen. More contemporary viruses have also been discovered in frozen environments. In 2004 US researchers successfully extracted the Spanish flu virus (which killed 50 million people between 1918 and 1919) from the lung tissue of a woman buried in permafrost in Alaska.