permafrost

When the permafrost melts, giant viruses wake up...

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This is one of the consequences of global warming that has long been feared but which seems to be confirmed. As the permafrost warms, it releases organisms that have been dormant for millennia into the frozen layers of earth several metres thick that cover Siberia. A team of researchers Franco-Russian has just brought new proof of this by updating Mollivirus sibericuma giant virus in the smallpox family. It was 30,000 years old and had remained "frozen" in the permafrost.
 
Che charming virus worthy of Hibernatus is original, to say the least. It is described by Futura Sciences as very large: 0.6 microns, a size larger than some bacteria. It is unique," says Jean-Michel Claverie, Professor of Medicine at the University of Aix-Marseille, a specialist in micro-biology. Its genome is enormous for a virus: more than 650,000 base pairs in its DNA, whereas there are only about ten in a virus such as influenza or AIDS. It knows how to embark on a very large number of proteins, some of which are capable of doing what no other virus knows how to do, i.e. making its own proteins from the information in the DNA. What are these proteins used for? Mystery for the moment.
 
What is certain is that in addition to these original characteristics, this virus can be brought back to life after a sleep of more than 30,000 years! Researchers do not hesitate to say that it "resuscitates".
Of course, this is not the first time that organisms have woken up after spending tens of thousands of years in the frozen ground. Already in 2014, Professor Claverie's team discovered another giant virus in the Siberian permafrost, the Pithovirus, which had withstood 30 millennia without losing any of its infectious power.
 
Scientists are both excited by their discovery and a little worried. Indeed, while Mollivirus sibericum is apparently harmless to humans, there is no reason to believe that many other viruses stored in permafrost ice (which represents 20% of the world's surface) could reappear and reactivate their dangerousness.
 
 
This hypothesis is all the more chilling because these areas, which have long remained deserted, are now more accessible and attract covetousness. Their subsoil contains many minerals and hydrocarbons that were previously unexploited. Professor Claverie explains at the microphone of France Inter : " The permafrost is not going to melt over 30 metres very quickly, but it is already possible to dock, to install mines, large equipment that will be able to excavate the permafrost for kilometres in search of oil, gas and minerals. Millions of cubic metres of soil will be extracted and pockets that have not been excavated for a million years will come to the surface. "
He adds, just to make us a little more stressed: " It is this indirect side of global warming that is dangerous. Being able to get into places where no one was there before, to set up camps, to set up factories, is a real danger. Until now there were only desert areas; no one could be infected by a possible virus. But if you put people who are also going to be confined to places where you are going to extract this permafrost in quantity, it is true that, objectively, there is a risk that old terrors of the past will be resurrected. ".
 
Photo: © Alexey Trofimov
 
 

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