Ancient Viruses In Permafrost Unlocked At A Former Soviet Weapons Lab

Permafrost. Melting ice in the Arctic in spring. Image Credit: Andrey Mihaylov/Shutterstock.com

Russian scientists are looking to uncover the mystery of extinct viruses by looking at the remains of animals found in the Siberian permafrost. 

The Vector Institute in Siberia, together with North-Eastern Federal University in Yakutsk, has recently announced they are conducting research on paleoviruses for the first time. 

Much of the recent research carried out at Vector has focused on present-day pathogens with a splash on interest in ancient bacteria, but this project will see researchers closely study viruses that are now extinct, most of which will be recovered from animals found in the Siberian permafrost. Their experiments have started with a section of soft tissues taken from a 4,450-years-old horse that was discovered in the Verkhoyansk region back in 2009. They also hope to expand their study into other animals, including the ancient elk, mammoth, prehistoric puppies, various rodents, ancient birds, a hare-like mammal, and others.

Through this work, scientists at Vector say they hope to gain an understanding of the evolutionary history of the long-gone viruses, as well as gain insights into infectious agents that still inhabit the planet today.

The Vector Institute is a state-run biological research center with a very "colorful" history. In the Cold War era, it's believed to have spearheaded the biological weapons research of the USSR. Nowadays, it carries out investigations into some of the world’s deadliest viruses, including the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19. They have also helped to develop EpiVacCorona, one of the leading COVID-19 vaccines developed in Russia.

The institute, found in a remote corner of Russia’s Novosibirsk Oblast, is one of two official repositories for the now-eradicated smallpox virus, the other being the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. Due to the threat of the pathogens that lay within, the facility is considered a high-security lab, lined with reinforced concrete walls and heavily surveillance.

Despite security measures, accidents have occurred here. In 2019, a considerable explosion was reported at the Vector facility. Fortunately, there were no public health risks stemming from the explosion. In another freak accident, a scientist at the facility died in 2004 after accidentally sticking herself with a needle contaminated with Ebola.

The study of permafrost-locked pathogens could become an increasingly urgent field of study. With rising global temperatures due to climate change, especially in the planet’s Arctic region, huge amounts of ice, glaciers, and permafrost are slowly thawing away. This raises the possibility of potentially unknown microbial life, from viruses and bacteria to fungi and algae, being released into the environmentWhile the scale of the threat is currently unknown, it's clearly an issue scientists are keen to understand ASAP.

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