French scientists have revived a prehistoric “zombie virus” frozen under a Russian lake for nearly 50,000 years and issued a warning that risks posed by ancient diseases are only increasing.
Their study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, described 13 viruses the team dug out of the Siberian permafrost – a layer of permanently frozen ground that is beginning to thaw, breathing life back into organisms long trapped inside.
At 48,500 years old, the most ancient of the bunch – called Pandoravirus yedoma – is now the oldest infectious virus to ever be unfrozen, the New York Post reported. It was found 16 meters below a lake in Russia’s far east.
The team wrote there’s more work to be done understanding the nature of the threat posed by organisms not seen on Earth for as long as two million years. But in the meantime, the risks are “bound to increase” amid climate change that’s accelerating the thaw and drawing more people to populate the Arctic, their study says.
The study says that anthrax outbreaks among Siberian reindeer have been linked to spores unleashed by century-old thawing animal carcasses, as reported by NPR.
The team only analyzed viruses that infect microscopic amoebas, which they say makes the risk of an accidental spillover “totally negligible.” But according to the study, a Russian lab is conducting a more risky search for “paleoviruses” in the frozen remains of mammoths, wooly rhinoceroses and prehistoric horses.
While describing that research as risky, the team describes two viruses it recovered from a “large amount of mammoth wool” and the frozen intestines of a Siberian wolf.
Even though the team only looked at amoeba-targeting viruses, they say their findings indicate much more dangerous germs could be waiting in the ice.
“The ease with which these new viruses were isolated suggests that infectious particles of viruses specific to many other” hosts, including animals, “remain probably abundant in ancient permafrost,” the study says.