As global warming continues, vast swathes of permafrost are melting, releasing material that has been trapped for thousands of years.
This material contains microbes that have lain dormant for hundreds of millennia.
To study emerging microbes, scientists revived a number of “zombie viruses” released from the Siberian permafrost, including one estimated to be 50,000 years old.
The blast killed at least 66 people, but Soviet authorities denied that the incident ever took place.
The team behind the discovery, led by microbiologist Jean-Marie Alempic of France’s National Center for Scientific Research, says these reanimating viruses pose a potential serious threat to public health.
However, now Russian scientists are also deliberately uncovering the bodies of long-dead woolly mammoths in an attempt to “awaken” these Stone Age viruses.
Last year, a project called Colossal was launched to modify the genetic code of the mammoth’s closest living relative, the Asian elephant, to create a hybrid animal that could survive in the Arctic Circle.
This latest project — run by the Russian State Center for Research on Virology and Biotechnology, known as Vector — aims to extract cellular material containing viruses that have killed frozen animals and bring it back to the laboratory for experimentation. This has caused concern among experts.
So what is a 50,000-year-old zombie virus discovered in Siberia?
What is a 50,000-year-old zombie virus discovered in Siberia?
In an eerie echo of the drama series Fortitude about the resuscitation of a deadly virus from the permafrost, more than a dozen prehistoric viruses that were previously trapped in the Siberian permafrost have been discovered.
From seven ancient permafrost samples, scientists were able to document 13 never-before-seen viruses that had lain dormant in the ice for thousands of years.
In 2014, the same researchers discovered a 30,000-year-old virus trapped in permafrost, the BBC reports.
The discovery was groundbreaking because it was still able to infect other organisms.
But now they have broken their own record with this 48,500-year-old virus.
The 48,500-year-old amoeba virus is one of 13 described in the new study, nine of which are tens of thousands of years old.
The researchers determined that each of them differed from all other known viruses in terms of its genome.
While the record virus was found under a lake, other extraction sites included mammoth wool and Siberian wolf intestines – all buried under permafrost.
Using live single-cell amoeba cultures, the team proved that viruses can still be infectious pathogens.
“The situation would be much more catastrophic for plant, animal or human diseases caused by the resurgence of an ancient unknown virus,” the researchers wrote.
“Therefore, it is reasonable to consider the risk of ancient virus particles remaining infectious and returning to circulation by thawing ancient layers of permafrost.”