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Giant 30,000-year-old virus found in Siberian permafrost lives again

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Not only has an ancient giant virus heretofore unknown to humanity been resurrected, specimens of the pathogen has been proven a killer -- but only of one-celled organisms. Still, the discovery of the virus, extracted from Siberian permafrost, and the fact that it survived its frozen dormancy presents another troubling potentiality: With the massive shrinkage occurring in the polar areas of the planet, could this mean that more viruses, not to mention deadlier viruses, could be waiting to be unleashed into a world that has not seen or had to combat them for thousands of years?

LiveScience reported (via Yahoo News) March 3 that although the pathogen does not resemble anything that is dangerous to mankind, the giant virus, there is a possibility that there are other, more virulent, pathogens that could possibly be revived.

"There is now a non-zero probability that the pathogenic microbes that bothered [ancient human populations] could be revived, and most likely infect us as well," study co-author Jean-Michel Claverie, a bioinformatics researcher at Aix-Marseille University in France, wrote in an email. "Those pathogens could be banal bacteria (curable with antibiotics) or resistant bacteria or nasty viruses. If they have been extinct for a long time, then our immune system is no longer prepared to respond to them."

As LiveScience's Tia Ghose explained, a "non-zero probability" exists when "the chances of the event happening are not "'impossible.'"

Claverie says that he and his colleagues have discovered a number of giant viruses in recent years. This latest virus was dubbed Pithovirus. It was discovered when samples of the layered permafrost extracted in 2000 from cliffs in Kolyma, Russia, were placed inside petri dishes containing amoebas. When the amoebas burst open, further study led to finding the destructive agent.

Neanderthals and humans were both around when the giant virus was still extant. Other viruses that plagued the hominids could very well lie frozen in glaciers, ice, and permafrost around the world. Extraction by humans and climate change could see the pathogens released back into a world that hasn't seen their like in tens of thousands of years.

"If viable virions ["virions" are dormant or inert virus particles] are still there, this is a good recipe for disaster," Claverie said.

And those disasters could be triggered not only by scientists experimenting in laboratories (such as what happened with the Pithovirus) but also by something as innocuous as miners drilling deeper into the Earth. Or even the gradual warming of the Earth.

If unleashing ancient once-dormant viruses upon the Earth via globing warming wasn't frightening enough, a study by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Chang has found that global warming will cause a marked increase in the number of rapes and murders and overall criminal activity in the next 90 years. The findings were based on the linear relationship between rising crime rates and rising temperatures.

But viruses don't need all that much help from climate change to offer up scary scenarios. In November, the Taiwan Centres for Disease Control announced that the avian flu strain H6N1, a virus that was known to infect bird populations, had been present in a throat culture taken from a young woman with a lung infection. The presence of the bird flu strain was the first incidence of the H6N1 virus having "jumped" from one species to another.

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