Researchers in Siberia have uncovered and revived (say what!) a 30,000 year old giant virus sparking concern that increased mining and oil drilling in the rapidly-defrosting area could inadvertently release a similar virus that could one day prove harmful to man. The mammoth virus belongs to a new family of mega-viruses that thankfully, only infect amoeba. But researchers say its revival in a laboratory stands as “a proof of principle that we could eventually resurrect active infectious viruses from different periods.”
The newly-discovered virus (named Pithovirus or Pithos) measures 1 1/2 micron, huge by virus standards as even viruses considered “large” measure only 1/15 that. Researchers say the virus is so large, it can be viewed with a normal light microscope.
The first giant DNA virus, dubbed Pandora, was discovered in Chile in 2011. This recent finding looked like Pandora but was 50% larger than the record-breaking Pandora virus. With regards to DNA, Pithovirus has 600,000 base pairs compared to the 9,749 base pairs found in the HIV retrovirus.
With the average temperature in Siberia plummeting, drilling activity in the area has increased raising concerns that dormant viruses, some up to three-million-years old, could be released into the wild. The researchers plan to reexamine large viruses that have been mistaken for bacteria in the past. One such specimen, found in 2008, had infected an amoeba living in a 17-year-old woman’s contact lens solution.