Nunatsiaq Online
NEWS: Around the Arctic March 06, 2014 - 8:31 am

Giant virus emerges from Siberia’s melting permafrost

"Important implications in terms of public health risks"

NUNATSIAQ NEWS
Meet Pithovirus, as displayed in an electron microscope image. This life-form has been frozen into permafrost in Chukotka for more than 30,000 years and is the largest virus ever discovered. (HANDOUT IMAGE)
Meet Pithovirus, as displayed in an electron microscope image. This life-form has been frozen into permafrost in Chukotka for more than 30,000 years and is the largest virus ever discovered. (HANDOUT IMAGE)

Researchers have uncovered a new type of giant virus, dubbed “Pithovirus,” from the frozen ground of north-eastern Siberia, Le centre national de la recherche scientifique, France’s major science research centre, said March 4.

The remains of mammoths and other large mammals, which roamed Arctic regions thousands of years ago, have often been revealed as ice melts in the Arctic.

But old viruses also survive in permafrost and could be released as it melts.

This giant Pithovirus, which is harmless to humans and animals, the centre said, survived after being frozen underground for more than 30,000 years.

Other old viruses, some which could be dangerous to humans and animals, may still survive in the permafrost, the centre said.

Le centre national de la recherche scientifique said its findings have “important implications in terms of public health risks related to the exploitation of mining and energy resources in circumpolar regions, which may arise as a result of global warming. “

Melting ice may lead also to the re-emergence of less friendly viruses, considered to be eradicated, such as the virus that causes smallpox.

And that’s not science fiction.

When researchers studied a sample from frozen ground in Chukotka , they were surprised to discover the new giant virus which, they found, affects other viruses.

Their analysis of the Pithovirus showed that it has almost nothing in common with other giant viruses, making it the first member of a new virus family.

They said their study demonstrates that viruses can survive in permafrost for more than 30,000 years.

As for contagion from less benign viruses, “the probability of this type of scenario needs to be estimated realistically,” they said.

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