In what sounds like the start of a horror film, scientists are working to awaken a “giant” virus they found in Siberia, which has been frozen for over 30,000 years. They’re going to make sure that it can’t harm humans first.
Mollivirus sibericum, as this virus is known, is 0.6 microns in length, or about 0.00002 inches. That’s pretty huge by virus standards. In addition to the size of this and other prehistoric viruses, they are also far more genetically complex than modern viruses.
Four prehistoric viruses have been found since 2003, and this is the second that will be woken up. Back in 2004 scientists also reanimated the virus that caused the deadly “Spanish Flu” which killed tens of millions of people, though the were careful to keep it from getting out.
In any case, dormant viruses can teach us a lot about how viruses work, both in as individual species and in general. In the case of the Spanish Flu, scientists wanted to figure out what made it so virulent. The more we study viruses, whether they’re dormant or otherwise, the better we can potentially fight back or even prevent them from spreading and causing disease in the first place.
And that’s especially useful because there could be any number of things buried in the permafrost of Siberia, where this giant virus was found. And, because of climate change, that permafrost is melting. In fact, the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions are warming at about twice the global average, which means a lot of melting ice that could reveal a number of interesting finds. Unfortunately, some of those finds might be, or carry, deadly diseases, What’s more, these regions are rich in resources, which companies will be clamoring to harvest as soon as possible. So it’s a good thing scientists are studying these viruses now, in controlled laboratory conditions, before some unlucky miner releases a prehistoric plague on us all.