The Importance of Discovering Ancient Viruses

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Updated: Jun 28, 2022
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How it works

Viruses are small infectious pathogens that replicate inside the cells of a living organism. Having been around since the beginning of time, viruses and other pathogens have played a big role in the evolution of our species and our ability to overcome the diseases they present. In fact, a big part of our genetic code comes from the ancient viruses that our ancestors overcame. That’s why World Enigmas would like to take a look at the discovery of ancient viruses and the clues they may provide us of an archaic world.

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Frozen In Time

For thousands of years, glaciers throughout our world have hosted long forgotten microbes frozen in time. While the dangers they once posed are unknown, records of these frozen microbes give us a glimpse into Earth’s evolutionary history. What’s truly terrifying is that as human-made climate change melts these frozen time-capsules, some of these viral pathogens have the ability to revive and possibly infect various life across the globe.

Such is the case with a giant 30,000 year old virus that came back to life after its discovery in a deep layer of Siberian permafrost. Although it poses no risk to mammals, it can, however, become infectious to single-cell amoebas. While this is good news for us, it may not be the same for other ancient pathogens now waking up to a much warmer Earth.

Recipes For Disaster

Isolated regions like Siberia are now experiencing melting permafrost which makes them more accessible for natural resources. While this may seem like a good thing, it could spell disaster in terms of new viral threats. With industrial explorations, layers of deep permafrost will be distrubed. By digging deep within these areas, we may actually expose certain pathogens that once caused disease among our ancient ancestors.

An example of this is a recent mysterious outbreak of anthrax in Siberia thought to have been caused by the thawing carcass of an infected reindeer that died from the disease over 75 years ago. Sickening dozens and claiming the life of an 11 year old boy, the infectious anthrax spores have spread across the tundra with Russian officials racing to vaccinate reindeer and burn the dead, infected carcasses they come across.

What’s truly frightening about this, is the capability these frozen pathogens have to infect a host after years of incubation. While not all viruses will become active again over such a long period of time, it only takes one or two dangerous types to cause a brand new, world-wide pandemic.

The good news? It all depends on the actual virus. In fact, it’s pretty rare that the 30,000 year-old one found in Siberia was so robust that it could actually revive itself after such a long period of time. In fact, most viruses by nature are pretty fragile which means they lack an external protein-like shell that protects them. This includes deadly viruses like the flu or HIV that have a much lower ability to survive after being frozen for thousands of years.

Facing The Unknown

The deadliest wars ever waged in history have been against viruses. For thousands of years, viruses have killed or debilitated our species over the course of our existence. Even with modern scientific advancements, studying these ancient pathogens is challenging. For now, the information we have about what our ancestors faced is sparse and hypothetical. In fact, the discovery of ancient viruses is relatively new and the potential they have to re-infect us is only starting to be researched.

While we are just starting to learn about ancient viruses, top scientists around the world are keeping a close eye on the ones being discovered. With an ever changing climate, we don’t know what the next big thing may be and that is always concerning. That’s why it’s important to broaden our understanding of the evolution of viruses and how our DNA adapted to fight off the diseases they caused. The answers we need may be found deep within ourselves.

Going Forward

While the risk of ancient viruses being released by thawing permafrost is real, the chances of them causing any future pandemic is incredibly low. Although we can’t predict the future, we can, however, take steps to understand the past which can help us to anticipate future changes. If we find and study these ancient viruses before they re-emerge, we could potentially develop universal vaccines, which could provide us with protection unlike our ancient ancestors. 

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The Importance of Discovering Ancient Viruses. (2022, Jun 28). Retrieved from