Scientists from several universities in Europe thawed 13 viruses found in permafrost, part of the ground that is permanently frozen, in Siberia, one of the coldest regions on the planet, in Russia.
The study, published on the BioRxiv pre-prints platform, has not yet been peer-reviewed. In the work of the researchers, they make a warning, when reporting that this type of work is important, because “due to climate warming, the irreversible melting of permafrost is releasing frozen organic matter for up to a million years”.
The researchers emphasize that this organic matter may be from “viruses that have remained dormant since prehistoric times”. According to scholars, the 13 viruses belong to five different classes and were collected in seven places. Some, for example, came from the droppings of mammoths and the stomachs of Siberian wolves.
From the collection of these pathogens, they were introduced into an amoeba culture. All work was done in the laboratory. Despite being frozen for 48,500 years, the viruses replicated. In other words, they can be infectious.
“We believe that our results with viruses that infect Acanthamoeba [ameba] can be extrapolated to many other DNA viruses capable of infecting humans or animals. Therefore, it is likely that ancient permafrost (eventually well over 50,000 years old) releases these unknown viruses after thawing,” the authors wrote in the study.
According to the researchers, increased global warming and Arctic exploration may increase the thawing of prehistoric viruses. “The risk is likely to increase in the context of global warming, when permafrost thaw will continue to accelerate and more people will be populating the Arctic following industrial developments,” the article reported.
No risk of contamination
Although the scientists thawed the viruses, the researchers ensured that there is no risk of any of the pathogens escaping from the laboratory and infecting humans or animals.
“The biological risk associated with the revival of prehistoric viruses that infect amoebas is therefore entirely negligible. [Inserí-los em amebas é a] best possible protection against an accidental infection of laboratory workers or the spread of a terrible virus,” the authors added.
Still according to the study, some scientists are researching prehistoric viruses that can be thawed and infect humans. However, these surveys are done in high biosafety centers.