Why is this a good idea?
A ‘monster’ virus which has lain dormant in the frozen wastelands of northeastern Russia is about to be resurrected by researchers curious of its potential effects.
Scientists anticipate “reanimating” a 30,000-year-old virus to learn more about it and discover if it is harmful to animals or humans. Mollivirus sibericum, which translates to soft Siberian virus, has been dubbed “Frankenvirus” by many who are in opposition of the quest to bring it back to life.
In contrast to other viruses, the soft Siberian bug is a monster. Not only does it have 523 genetic proteins and measures 0.6 microns, it can also be seen using light microscopy.
As BBC News reports, the Mollivirus sibericum virus is the fourth prehistoric virus to have been discovered since 2003, and experts warn climate change and thawing ice could resurrect similar – and perhaps even more dangerous – pathogens.
The French National Center for Scientific Research made the discovery in the Kolyma lowland region of Russia. The soft Siberian virus is the second of its kind to be found by the team. In 2003, researchers discovered the Minivirus, followed by the Pandoraviruses in 2013, and Pithovirus sibericum which was discovered last year.
Reserachers wrote in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS):
The saga of giant viruses started in 2003. Two additional types of giant viruses have been discovered [and] we now describe Mollivirus sibericum, a fourth type of giant virus isolated from the same permafrost sample. These four types of giant virus exhibit different structures, sizes, genome length, and replication cycles. Their origin and mode of evolution are the subject of conflicting hypotheses. The fact that two different viruses could be easily revived from prehistoric permafrost should be of concern in a context of global warming.
The regions in which these mega microbes are being discovered are being increasingly exploited for their mineral resources, especially oil. As Upriser shares, the rate at which they are exploited will no doubt increase as the areas become more accessible due to melting ice and climate change.
Said lead researcher Jean-Michel Claverie:
A few viral particles that are still infectious may be enough, in the presence of a vulnerable host, to revive potentially pathogenic viruses. If we are not careful, and we industrialize these areas without putting safeguards in place, we run the risk of one day waking up viruses such as small pox that we thought were eradicated.
That’s definitely concerning.
In the lab, Professor Claverie and his team will attempt to resurrect the newly discovered virus by placing it with a single-cell amoeba, which will serve as its host. The virus Pithovirus sibericum was revived in March 2014 using similar techniques.
Research has been carried out, and according to co-author Dr Chantal Abergel, the virus “comes into the cell, multiplies and finally kills the cell. It is able to kill the amoeba – but it won’t infect a human cell.”
Still, a lot of controversy surrounds the scientists plan to “revive” the Mollivirus sibericum virus. Different than most viruses circulating today, these ancient pathogens are not only bigger, they’re far more complex genetically.
The recently discovered virus has more than 500 genes, and the Pandoravirus found in 2003 has 2,500. Compare that to the Influenza A virus which has eight genes.
Of course, a philosophical debate will not deter scientists from doing their work, but a number of pros and cons deserve to be weighed before further research is conducted.
In 2004, United States scientists resurrected the “Spanish flu” virus, which ended up killing tens of millions of people at the start of the 20th century. The revived the virus to understand why the pathogen was so virulent.
Researchers from the States traveled to Alaska to take frozen lung tissues from a woman who was buried in permafrost, and teased genetic details out of the samples and from autopsy issues stored in formalin. Their work allowed the team to reconstruct the code for the virus’ eight genes – but at what cost? All the work was done in a top-security lab at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), yet still wasn’t contained.
We have to ask ourselves as an informed public – and voice our concerns to those ‘in charge’ – if “reviving” a monster virus and is really in the best interest of the public.