Thousands of years spent sleeping in a frozen state. To be awakened by the touch of scientists. That has been the destiny of the largest virus to be discovered. Permafrost, an underlying layer of soil which is frozen, normally found in polar regions, was its home for around 30,000 years round, in Siberia. It was reanimated to life and has been named Pithovirus sibericum by its discoverers.
What pushed the scientists to embark on such a study? Actually, the two scientists who made this discovery had already done the same with a species of plant from the same Siberian permafrost. A plant was revived, again having been in the permafrost for around 30,000 years. Hence, one of the researchers thought that maybe the same could be done with viruses.
Pithovirus sibericum measures 1.5 micrometres in length (yes, this is considered to be enormous for a virus), which makes of it the largest virus to be known. Viruses, generally, are minute creatures, making around 20 to 300 nanometres in diameter. Filamentous viruses may be of 1400 nanometres in length. So, Pithovirus sibericum seems to be defying the generalised characteristics of viruses. Other large viruses have been discovered in the past. For instance, we have the Mimivirus, and the Pandoraviruses.
Apart from being a spectacular discovery in terms of the size of the virus, this study has some bearing on us, humans. How so? Well, consider this. A virus that had long been in a comatose state, so to say, for 30 000 years long, has been reanimated. When it ‘woke up from its sleep’, it was capable to infect amoebas, as demonstrated by the researchers. What if this were only pointing at the possibility that other such viruses, frozen and preserved in the polar caps waiting to be released from their ice prison, also exist? And, what if global warming were to cause the melting of polar caps with entrapped harmful viruses to US, humans?!
Giant viruses do not affect humans, but…there’s a concern
So, are there health concerns? Could be. Giant viruses normally only infect amoebae, and not humans. However, one of them had once infiltrated inside the system of a baby boy. The virus in question was the Marseillevirus, and had caused inflammation of the lymph nodes. So, the possibility of health hazards cannot be ruled out. Global warming is already of a major concern as it has caused disbalance in nature. Now, it could also release harmful viruses by thawing out chunks of ice.
However, other scientists are of the opinion that this possibility is quite far-fetched, while highlighting that the real problems would be the loss of homes of people who could have their lands sunk beneath the sea surface.