Scientists revived a 48,500-year-old "zombie virus" from the Siberian permafrost

It's the most ancient virus that has been revived so far.
Ayesha Gulzar

Researchers have resurrected a 48,500-year-old zombie virus that had remained dormant in Siberian permafrost, making it the most ancient virus that has been revived so far. Scientists warned that these ancient viruses are potentially a significant threat to public health.

Permafrost- the world's largest freezer is defrosting

Permafrost is a layer of frozen soil that covers about 25 percent of the Northern Hemisphere. It acts like a giant freezer, keeping microbes, carbon, poisonous mercury, and soil locked in place.

Now due to climate change, this frozen layer is it's melting; and things are getting weird and creepy.

In a study, which has yet to be peer-reviewed, researchers from the French National Center for Scientific Research examined ancient samples collected from permafrost in Siberia. They revived and characterized 13 never before seen viruses and called them "zombie viruses," as they remained infectious despite spending millennia trapped in the frozen ground.

"Due to climate warming, irreversibly thawing permafrost is releasing organic matter frozen for up to a million years, most of which decomposes into carbon dioxide and methane, further enhancing the greenhouse effect," said microbiologist Jean-Marie Alempic, who led the research for the zombie virus.

All 13 viruses have different genomes, and the oldest among them, called Pandoravirus yedoma, is nearly 50,000 years old. It is worth mentioning that while the Pandoravirus was discovered below the bottom of a lake in Yukechi Alas in Yakutia, Russia, others have been found everywhere, from mammoth fur to the intestines of a Siberian wolf.

"The situation would be much more disastrous in the case of a plant, animal, or human diseases caused by the revival of an ancient unknown virus," write the researchers.

The researchers have already warned the medical authorities about the lack of updates on "live" viruses in the permafrost over the last decade.

Ancient microbes are waking up

This is not the first time that researchers have found an ancient virus trapped within the ice. In 2014, the same researchers revived a 30,000-year-old virus trapped in permafrost. The discovery was groundbreaking because, after all that time, the virus was still able to infect organisms. But now, they've beaten their record by reviving a virus that is 48,500 years old.

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Although the team was careful only to revive the ones incapable of infecting humans, many unknown viruses trapped inside the permafrost could potentially be dangerous to humans.

Some have already claimed lives in the past.

In 2016, an anthrax outbreak in Siberia infected dozens of people and killed a 12-year-old boy. The disease vector is thought to be the thawing and decaying carcass of a reindeer killed in 1941.

It's unclear if these ancient viruses would be able to infect a host once exposed to outdoor conditions like heat, oxygen, and UV rays. But researchers say the chance of such a situation is increasing as more of the permafrost thaws and more people begin to occupy the melting Arctic for commercial and industrial ventures.

The threat is tiny. But it exists.

Further studies are needed to assess the danger these infectious agents could pose as the permafrost melts.

The research has not yet been peer-reviewed but is available on bioRxiv.

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