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Researchers Warn Melting Permafrost May Awaken 'Giant Viruses'

The researchers plan to 'wake up' the 30,000-year-old giant virus, but not until they verify that the bug cannot cause animal or human disease

Cells of the Mollivirus sibericum, a virus that was buried deep in the Siberian permafrost for over 30,000 years, is thought to be the newest representative of what are loosely known as "giant viruses." (Photo: Enhanced/AFP) 

Yet another giant prehistoric virus has been unearthed in the frozen tundra of Siberia, where scientists warn climate change is melting the permafrost and awakening potentially dangerous microscopic pathogens. 

Reporting this week in the flagship journal of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, French researchers announced the discovery of Mollivirus sibericum, found in the permafrost of northern Russia.

"We cannot rule out that distant viruses of ancient Siberian human populations could re-emerge as Arctic permafrost layers melt and/or are disrupted by industrial activities."
—French researchers, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science

The researchers plan to "wake up" the 30,000-year-old "Frankenvirus," but not until they verify that the bug cannot cause animal or human disease.

As climate change warms Arctic and sub-Arctic regions at more than twice the global average, permafrost is becoming less permanent. Last year, the same team of French virus-hunters discovered another giant virus strainPithovirus sibericum, in the same sample of Arctic permafrost.

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As the authors of the study said in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, "the fact that two different viruses could be easily revived from prehistoric permafrost should be of concern in [the] context of global warming."

Noting that Mollivirus sibericum is the fourth such virus to be discovered, they added: "Our finding suggests that prehistory 'live' viruses are not a rare occurrence." Further, they warned, "we cannot rule out that distant viruses of ancient Siberian human populations could re-emerge as Arctic permafrost layers melt and/or are disrupted by industrial activities."

And one of the lead researchers, Jean-Michel Claverie, told Agence France Presse: "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."

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