30,000-year-old giant virus unearthed

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

Amoebas are tiny microbes made up of a single cell.

Researchers have recently discovered a 30,000-year-old virus in Russia’s Siberian permafrost (ground that stays frozen for a long time). After running some tests in the lab, they found it was able to infect a single-celled organism known as an amoeba, despite being stuck in the ground for so long. While these ancient viruses may present a threat, they’re not as immediately dangerous as modern bacteria that are evolving into highly medicine-resistant “superbugs”.

As for the recently discovered prehistoric virus, it’s referred to as giant because it is many times larger than the ones that exist today. For example, the deadly HIV virus that has crippled millions of people’s immune systems (our body’s disease-fighting system) contains about 12 genes (life’s blueprints). The newly discovered virus, by comparison, houses a whopping 500 genes. When the researchers took samples from Siberia and put them next to blob-like amoebas, several of the single-celled organisms burst open and died after a short period of time. As dangerous as the virus seems to be, humans and other complex animals have nothing to worry about; the virus only infects single-celled organisms.

Phew! For a moment there, I thought we were about to join the dinosaurs in becoming extinct. However, if the climate continues to warm, we may not be so safe. Some researchers are worried that global warming and human activities like mining and drilling will unleash the fury of unknown and undiscovered viruses into the world. Others say the chances of releasing a virus that can infect humans are really small. For now, the researchers plan to search the permafrost for a virus that could indeed pose a threat.

While ancient plagues and viruses may one day cause a problem, there’s a far more pressing dilemma with medicine-resistant superbugs. Doctors are prescribing too many antibiotics – bacteria-killing drugs – and the little disease-ridden buggers are growing tougher. In fact, some researchers believe that we may lose the race with superbugs within decades, meaning humanity would be helpless against them. To combat this, US President Barack Obama recently increased funding to fight “nightmare bacteria”, devoting $30 million over the next five years to tackle the issue.

Featured image courtesy of Julia Bartoli & Chantal Abergel. Image of amoeba courtesy of Proyecto Agua on Flickr.