Thankfully this “giant virus” is not harmful to humans or animals in any way but it has called into question the possibility of ancient and neanderthal viruses or pathogens being resurrected due to the receding ice-caps across the Tundra and Arctic region of our planet. The study’s co-author Jean-Michel Claverie, a bioinformatics researcher at Aix-Marseille University in France said there was now a “non-zero probability” that the pathogens from way-back-when could be “revived, and most likely infect us as well”. He calls into question our immune system’s capability of dealing with the archaic pathogens.
Now, before you go running for the hills or checking EBay for gas masks, I just want to point out something; “non-zero” just means not impossible.
Curtis Suttle, a marine virologist at the University of British Columbia in Canada, has labelled this as unlikely, however, stating “We are inundated by millions of viruses as we move through our everyday life. 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”. Suttle also points out “[we should] 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”.
Although we may or may not be killed by some mammoth-slaying mother of a virus in years to come the work done by the scientists at Aix-Marseille University has done a lot for our understanding and knowledge of different virus strains. The findings were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on March 3rd.
The mysterious giant virus was collected by researchers by drilling 100 feet horizontally into the steep cliff-face of ice in the Kolyma region of Far East Russia over ten years ago. Drilling horizontally reduces the risk of contamination from newer ice packs. Samples from the permafrost were placed in Petri dishes with single-celled organisms called amoebas. When the permafrost thawed out, some of the sample amoebas had been infected and killed, the ancient pathogen was found. It also happens to be the largest ever discovered.
The pathogen is from a previously unreported family of virus (now named Pithovirus) and although it resembles the Pandoravirus (previous largest-known virus), in shape, it shares more properties with classic viruses which have an icosahedral shape (with 20 triangular-shaped faces and 30 edges).
More discoveries of “giant viruses” (the size of bacteria) may bring into question the labelling of a virus as a living thing – with researchers calling for it to be considered a form of life. A new study suggests they should, showing that giant viruses have some of the most ancient protein structures found in all organisms on the planet.
I might just check EBay anyway….just to be safe.