Time bombs ticking in Siberia

Mollivirus sibericum has more than 500 genes, which is far more than the Influenza A virus’s 11, but much less than the Pandoravirus that has 2,500. Source: Shutter Stock/Legion Media

Mollivirus sibericum has more than 500 genes, which is far more than the Influenza A virus’s 11, but much less than the Pandoravirus that has 2,500. Source: Shutter Stock/Legion Media

Over two dozen new and potentially deadly viruses have been unearthed in Russia's North and Siberia. Among them is the giant virus, Mollivirus sibericum, which scientists say was frozen in ice for 30,000 years.

By standards of the virus world, Mollivirus sibericum is enormous. At 0.6 microns, it can be seen under a normal optical microscope, very unusual for viruses.

Scientists from Russia's Institute of Physico-Chemical and Biological Problems in Soil Science discovered Mollivirus sibericum, which they are trying to revive with France’s National Centre for Scientific Research.

Since DNA samples of Mollivirus sibericum were preserved, amoebas have been infected.

In 2013, the same Russian-French team discovered another giant virus, Pithovirus sibericum.

"The study of these new viruses will enable scientists to take control of the situation," said Mikhail Schelkanov, the leading Russian virologist. "The irreversible warming in the Arctic will sooner or later lead to undesired consequences and it's better to understand them beforehand."

Over two dozen new and potentially deadly viruses have been found in recent years in Russia's Far North and Siberia. Almost half are on Arctic islands and coasts, in the Barents Sea and the Pacific Ocean. Schelkanov said they are in some ways like slow-motion time-bombs.

"Today, infectious agents that were isolated in Soviet times are being studied actively,’’ Schelkanov explained. "At that time, there was no effective method for studying them and so they were simply preserved at low temperatures in the state's virus collection."

For now it is not clear how dangerous the newly-discovered viruses are for humans. Mollivirus sibericum has more than 500 genes, which is far more than the Influenza A virus’s 11, but much less than the Pandora virus that has 2,500. Experts say that the number of genes, however, is not an indicator of potency.

"Viruses are intra-cellular parasites and they are more effective when they have a small number of working genes," said Schelkanov.

Rivkina notes that the majority of viruses found in the permafrost are not dangerous to humans. She pointed out that every year tons of frozen rocks fall into Siberian rivers, such as Kolyma, but a Hollywood-style "virus Apocalypse” is nowhere near. "All mammoths found in the permafrost must pass virus control before scientists can start working with them. Until now, no viruses dangerous to humans have been discovered. Of course we are exploring what could happen if the permafrost melts even more, but I do not think this would necessarily lead to a spread of lethal diseases," Rivkina said.

All rights reserved by Rossiyskaya Gazeta.

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