The ancient virus infects only amoebas, not humans or other animals. This pathogen belongs to a previously unknown family of viruses, now dubbed Pithovirus, which shares only a third of its genes with any known organisms and only 11 percent of its genes with other viruses. Though the new virus resembles the largest viruses ever found, Pandoraviruses, in shape, it is more closely related to classical viruses, which have an isocahedral shape (with 20 triangular-shaped faces), Claverie said.
The findings raise the possibility that other long-dormant or eradicated viruses could be resurrected from the Arctic. As the climate warms and sea ice and permafrost melt, oil and mining companies are drilling many formerly off-limit areas in Russia, raising the possibility that ancient human viruses could be released.
For instance, Neanderthals and humans both lived in Siberia as recently as 28,000 years ago, and some of the diseases that plagued both species may still be around.
"If viable virions are still there, this is a good recipe for disaster," Claverie said. "Virions" is the term used for the virus particles when they are in their inert or dormant form.
But not everyone thinks these viruses spell potential doom.
"We are inundated by millions of viruses as we move through our everyday life," said Curtis Suttle, a marine virologist at the University of British Columbia in Canada, who was not involved in the study. "Every time we swim in the sea, we swallow about a billion viruses and inhale many thousands every day. It is true that viruses will be archived in permafrost and glacial ice, but the probability that viral pathogens of humans are abundant enough, and would circulate extensively enough to affect human health, stretches scientific rationality to the breaking point."
"I would be much more concerned about the hundreds of millions of people that will be displaced by rising sea levels than the risk of being exposed to pathogens from melting permafrost."
The findings were published today (March 3) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Original article on Live Science.
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