Russian scientists unearth ancient viruses

Horns of a dilemma: Could a woolly mammoth infect us today, even 40,000 years after its death?

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 Siberia has just announced it will examine ancient viruses harvested from the corpses of animals frozen in the permafrost 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 10 nonillion 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 pathogens. 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 Neanderthals 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 with Ebola. 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.

You Decide

  1. Should we always pursue scientific knowledge, no matter the risks?
  2. Who should get to decide whether or not scientific research goes ahead? Is it up to the scientists, or should we all get to choose?

Activities

  1. Write a short story about a Neanderthal who is frozen in ice and wakes up 40,000 years later in a Siberian lab.
  2. Write a newspaper article documenting the outbreak of a deadly ancient disease originating in Russia. Make sure you warn your readers about the dangers of infection, and explain what they can do to limit them.

Some People Say...

“Curiosity is, in great and generous minds, the first passion and the last.”

Samuel Johnson (1709 – 1784), English writer

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Most people agree that diseases, in the wrong hands, can be a dangerous weapon. Biological warfare has been going on for centuries: in the mediaeval era, besieging armies would put dead cows in wells, or even catapult them over the walls, to spread disease in the cities they wanted to capture. British colonists spread smallpox among indigenous Australians in 1789. Today, biological weapons are more sophisticated: we can engineer diseases to make them more infectious and more deadly.
What do we not know?
There is some debate over whether or not diseases had a role in wiping out our closest relatives, the Neanderthals. Some believe that modern humans were better able to adapt to diseases, allowing their populations to grow and outcompete the Neanderthals. But others think the Neanderthals died out because of conflict with modern humans, difficulty adapting to high levels of solar radiation or simply by interbreeding with modern humans until the populations were assimilated.

Word Watch

Vektor
A Russian research lab originally set up to study and develop biological weapons. Today it is used to study pathogens: it holds samples of bird flu and smallpox.
Siberia
A large region in the centre of Russia, where temperatures often reach -25C in winter.
Permafrost
Any ground that remains constantly below 0C for more than two years. Most permafrost is found around the Arctic circle, in Russia and North America.
Genetic material
A virus contains a small amount of DNA or RNA that it injects into a cell in order to force that cell to stop its usual function and start producing more viruses instead.
Nonillion
1 followed by 30 zeros. This figure is 100 million times greater than the number of stars in the universe.
Woolly mammoth
An ancient cousin of modern-day elephants. Most died out at the end of the last ice age around 11,000 years ago, although a small colony survived on Wrangel Island north of Russia until 3,700 years ago.
Pathogens
Any organism that causes illness in its host. Most pathogens can be classified as viruses, bacteria or fungus.
Neanderthals
The last surviving species of human beings other than ourselves. They went extinct around 40,000 years ago, possibly because they were less capable than modern humans at adapting to new diseases.
Foot-and-mouth
A highly infectious disease that can kill livestock. To control outbreaks, governments often have to resort to culling huge numbers of animals.
Ebola
An extremely deadly tropical disease that kills up to 90% of those infected with it.

Subjects

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