Infectious giant virus recovered from old ice

The past decade has revealed some exciting new discoveries in the field of virology. Several giant viruses have been discovered that are 100 times the size of viruses we’re familiar with, and they have unique genomes that hint at another domain of life (in addition to bacteria, archaea and eukaryotes). Although these viruses still require the host’s machinery for energy, they are changing the way we think about viruses and whether they’re living or non-living.

Ed Yong published an article in Nature News yesterday about the newest giant virus: Pithovirus sibericum, recovered from 30,000 year old permafrost. This virus is still infectious to amoebas and is the largest found so far. The genome inside isn’t as tightly packed as other viruses, but what that means for function of the virus is unknown.

These viruses aren’t known to infect humans. However, I’ve read comments about whether these resurrected viruses could become a problem for human health, especially in light of climate change. What do you think? 

About britdodson

Over several years as a research scientist, I’ve realized that we fail to communicate research in fun and exciting ways. We’re often misquoted, not due to journalist errors, but because our scientific language is complicated and riddled with jargon. I want to improve my communication abilities with this blog by using techniques from creative writing and applying them to nonfiction scientific writing. But, in order to be skilled at writing one must practice (so says writers like Stephen King). This blog will serve as my first venture into science writing. I'm very passionate about entomology, infectious diseases and human health, so my posts will initially focus on those topics.
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One Response to Infectious giant virus recovered from old ice

  1. ellscubed says:

    Great post! The /r/science community of Reddit has been up in arms about this all day.

    Obviously, there’s no human health risk for this particular virus. However, this is a ‘proof of concept’ that viral particles can remain infectious after being frozen…even after its host has continued evolving over millenia.

    So what does this mean for human health? For years, scientists and public officials have been concerned about the gravesites of smallpox victims that must litter the frozen landscapes. Here’s a great article from 2008 that covers all aspects of the topic. To give you an idea…it closes with this quote:

    But fear needs perspective. “These things don’t cough anymore,” says the CDC’s Regnery. Short of people wiping a newly exposed cadaver across their eye, it is hard for him to see how the virus could transfer.

    From my perspective…it would require a union of geographers, historians, epidemiologists, meteorologists, and modellers just to identify regions of increased risk of reemergence. Then we’d have to send biohazard construction crews to locate and dispose of anything they find…regardless of whether it tests positive for what they’re looking for.

    It seems like a fun project to work on…but I’m not sure who would fund it!

    On an unrelated note…I’d bet that the “giant” descriptor played a huge role in how far this story has travelled.

    Here’s a blog article I found on the topic of unearthing frozen graves and using DNA to identify bacterial pathogens…note that they were not focused on pathogen viability or viral pathogens.

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