Ancient virus revived from Russian permafrost after 48,500 years - study

The virus, a Pandoravirus, had been lying dormant in Russia's permafrost. The study sheds light on the dangers of climate change awakening prehistoric diseases from permafrost.

 Bacteria. Ancient diseases, like the bacteria-sized Pandoravirus, could threaten the world after thawing out of permafrost (Illustrative). (photo credit: PIXABAY)
Bacteria. Ancient diseases, like the bacteria-sized Pandoravirus, could threaten the world after thawing out of permafrost (Illustrative).
(photo credit: PIXABAY)

Scientists have managed to unearth the oldest known virus on Earth, having recovered the 48,500-year-old virus from the Russian permafrost, according to a recent study.

The virus itself, called Pandoravirus yedoma, was of the ones that had been revived after lying dormant in the permafrost in Russia's Siberia for thousands of years.

The findings of this study were published in a paper on bioXrv and have not been peer-reviewed, however, they shed light on a possible catastrophe awaiting us, one that humanity can do nothing about.

Opening Pandora's box: The ancient pandoravirus in the Russian permafrost

The Pandoravirus was found in the permafrost found in the bottom of a lake in Russia.

 A Pandoravirus (Illustrative). (credit: Wikimedia Commons) A Pandoravirus (Illustrative). (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The virus is notably giant, being big enough to be examined under a microscope and possessing around 2,500 genes, compared to modern viruses that have at most 20 genes.

For example, the virus that causes influenza has seven genes and HIV has just nine.

Pandoraviruses in general are actually so massive that when they were first seen by scientists, they were overlooked because they were considered to be too big to actually be viruses. Rather, people thought they were bacteria.

The fact that they are so large has led some scientists to propose that this may indicate the existence of something entirely different, a new "domain" of microbes and therefore a new branch on the evolutionary tree, though this is not accepted by the wider scientific community.

Other Pandoraviruses are known to exist, typically infecting single-cell amoebas. This 48,500-year-old virus is just another member of the family.

But the unearthing of this virus signifies something some experts have been raising alarm bells about, metaphorically opening Pandora's Box.

The dangers of ancient viruses: They're coming and we can't stop it

Pandoraviruses were first definitively identified in 2013 and live in environments that aren't always well-studied. As such, we don't yet know much about them. 

However, as far as we know, Pandoraviruses pose no danger to human life in any way. As far as scientists are aware, they seem to limit themselves to watery areas infecting amoebae and plankton. 

But the problem isn't that this ancient virus could devastate the planet, but that an ancient virus has been revived in the first place. 

While this was done intentionally this time, more will come – and scientists can't stop it.

The Pandoravirus in Russia was preserved under the permafrost, an area of ground where everything, including a host of organic matter, has been perpetually frozen for millions of years. This cold terrain constitutes roughly a quarter of the Earth's Northern hemisphere.

But worsening climate change has seen permafrost slowly begin to roll back, the thawing ice now giving way to everything it had kept hidden. 

This is problematic for a couple of reasons. The first is that much of this organic matter that is now exposed will decay and end up releasing carbon dioxide and methane, which are greenhouse gases, therefore making climate change even worse.

But the second reason is that it will also revive untold numbers of ancient prehistoric viruses forgotten by time, now ready to come back to the surface.

As evidence, consider the recent study. One of the viruses, the Pandoravirus, was revived from the bottom of a lake in Russia. But another one, this one just 27,000 years old, was revived from mammoth defecation that had been preserved in the permafrost.

There could be any number of viruses still preserved in frozen animal hosts that are slowly being thawed out of their icy cages in the permafrost. And we know there are animal remains preserved in the permafrost, like the wooly mammoth found in the bottom of a Russian lake. And humanity - and every other life-form on Earth - isn't ready for what could happen.

It's possible that they won't survive for long, but knowing anything about these viruses is impossible to estimate. But until we know for sure, the danger of ancient diseases becoming a new deadly plague on mankind brought by climate change remains.

And at the rate climate change is going, there seems to be no way to stop it.