• Reading Level 5
Science | History | Geography | Citizenship | PSHE | Relationships and health

Russian scientists unearth ancient viruses

Should scientists be examining prehistoric viruses? As Russian researchers announce that they will start studying frozen pathogens, some fear their curiosity might doom humanity. It could be the plot of a science fiction film: a prehistoric deadly virus, trapped in the Arctic ice for millennia, is dug up by a group of scientists. Before they know what they have on their hands, the virus has reanimated, infected them and spread across the globe. But some are now warning that this could very soon become reality. The Vektor research lab in SiberiaA northern region of Russia, known for its harsh winters. It has a long history as a place of exile for criminals and political prisoners. has just announced it will examine ancient viruses harvested from the corpses of animals frozen in the permafrostAny ground that remains completely frozen for at least two years. Permafrost covers large regions of the Earth.  around the Arctic circle. The study will start by analyzing tissues from a prehistoric horse from at least 4,500 ago. The team hopes that findings will help with vital research into virus evolution. But some fear that digging up these ancient remains and extracting pathogens from them for study could risk unleashing an ancient virus and devastate the world. How likely is this to happen? Some viruses and bacteria are undoubtedly capable of surviving for tens of thousands of years. In 2014, Russian researchers unearthed two viruses that had been frozen for 30,000 years. They immediately reanimated and became infectious. But the vast majority of viruses do not survive freezing. The researchers at Vektor are mostly looking not for live viruses, but for dead ones whose genetic material can be salvaged. And any live viruses they find are unlikely to be able to infect humans. Scientists estimate that there are 10n nonillionn individual viruses on Earth - greater than the number of stars in the universe. It seems that with so many viruses floating around, we should be getting sick all the time. But only just over 200 of these viruses are capable of infecting human beings. Viruses infect bodies by latching on to molecules on the surface of cells and injecting them with genetic material. But these molecules vary from species to species. If a virus encounters a cell that it is not designed to infect, it just bounces off. This means that almost all of the viruses we come into contact with simply pass harmlessly through our bodies. That is why many scientists argue that we are safe from ancient diseases: a virus that is specialised to infect a woolly mammoth is very unlikely to be able to infect a human being. Yet some say we are still at risk from these ancient pathogensAn organism that causes disease to its host.. They point out that mammoths are not the only things buried in the permafrost. Around 40,000 years ago, modern humans shared the planet with another human species, Neanderthals. Digs have already found the frozen corpses of NeanderthalsAn extinct hominid species that lived alongside Homo sapiens until around 40,000 years ago. Their ancestry began in Africa, like ours, but neanderthals migrated to Europe and Asia long before humans. They looked like us but were shorter and stockier with angled cheekbones, prominent brows and wide noses.  and ancient homo sapiens in the northern wastes. Viruses specialised to infect them might also be able to infect us. Extinct species buried in the ice have close living relatives - dogs, horses, even elephants - that could theoretically be infected by their ancestors' diseases. A pathogen does not have to affect human beings directly to do huge damage to human societies: some of the biggest threats in recent decades have come from livestock diseases like foot-and-mouth. Some worry that we cannot be sure of containing the pathogens if they are released. In 2019, a researcher at the Vektor lab died after accidentally infecting herself withn EbolaA highly infectious disease causing internal and external bleeding. A vaccine against it has recently been developed.. It would be all too easy to spread diseases by accident. Should scientists be examining prehistoric viruses? Deep freeze Yes, say some. We should always pursue scientific advance in spite of the risks. And in this case, the risk is slim: it is very unlikely that in the frozen corpses of horses and mammoths we will find a virus capable of infecting humans, and even if we did, we would be able to contain it in the lab. A killer virus emerging from the ice is the stuff of science fiction. Not at all, say others. Even if there is the slightest risk that scientific research will result in the collapse of civilisation itself, it is too dangerous to pursue it. Thanks to human error, we will never be sure that we can contain a virus, and if one does escape from the lab it could devastate a population that will have had no opportunity to develop immunity to it. KeywordsSiberia - A northern region of Russia, known for its harsh winters. It has a long history as a place of exile for criminals and political prisoners.

Continue Reading

The Day is an independent, online, subscription-based news publication for schools, focusing on the big global issues beneath the headlines. Our dedicated newsroom writes news, features, polls, quizzes, translations… activities to bring the wider world into the classroom. Through the news we help children and teachers develop the thinking, speaking and writing skills to build a better world. Our stories are a proven cross-curricular resource published at five different reading levels for ages 5 to 19. The Day has a loyal and growing membership in over 70 countries and its effectiveness is supported by case studies and teacher endorsements.

Start your free trial Already have an account? Log in / register