The fourth giant virus that dates back to 30,000 years ago was discovered in a Siberian permafrost sample.
Coined Mollivirus sibericum, the giant and ancient virus is as impressive as its relative, Pandoravirus, counting above 500 genes. Both Mollivirus sibericum and Pandoravirus have been hiding in a squirrel nest, buried 30 meters deep in the Siberian permafrost for the past 30,000 years.
When Russian researchers took the nest with all its trinkets to the laboratory, they were mostly interested in the seeds that would have been the squirrel’s nourishing reserves. And they succeeded in bringing back to life a plant sprouted from one of the 30,000-year old seeds.
Intrigued by this discovery, Jean-Michel Claverie of the University of the Mediterranean School of Medicine, where he is a Professor of bioinformatics and genomics, asked to join the Russian researchers and take a closer look at what else could be hiding in the ancient squirrel nest.
And so, a quest for fishing out old viruses began. After receiving a sample of the permafrost, Claverie and his team set out to grow amoebas and use these organisms as bait for what could have been numbed in nature’s freezer for 30,000 years.
“We use amoeba as bait to fish out whatever viruses may be in that specific sample”,
The laboratory-grown amoebas were moved to Petri dishes where they were combined with permafrost samples. Most of the times, as Claverie explained, nothing happened. Yet, after a while and only in some of the Petri dishes, the amoebas were killed. This was what the researchers had been waiting for.
The first signs of the ancient virus Mollivirus sibericum were present. All these samples were carefully isolated and studied in a secure environment. Over 500 genes that were discovered won it the ‘giant’ description. Think of the fact that Pandoravirus counts five times more genes, while HIV counts merely nine genes.
Since 2003 when the research venture surrounding the same permafrost sample took off, Mollivirus sibericum is the fourth such giant virus to be discovered. Don’t fret, there is no epidemic on its way. None of the viruses are activated, precisely to prevent a crisis situation. All four are kept under secure laboratory conditions and are dormant, as they have been for the past 30,000 years, nested under 30 meters of permafrost in the Siberian region.
But the fascination they exert is endless, even in dormant state. Further analysis could help shed light on the origin of life on Earth or the evolution of viruses and possible means to tackle modern ones in more efficient ways.
If you wish to read more on the Mollivirus sibericum, the research team led by Jean-Michel Claverie published a fascinating paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
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