The remains of a 4,500-year-old horse, found in melted Siberian permafrost in 2009, is undergoing analysis in a Russian lab researching ancient viruses.
A former centre for the development of biological weapons in Soviet times, the Vektor laboratory is one of only two facilities in the world to store the smallpox virus, and has developed the EpiVacCorona vaccine, which is scheduled to begin mass production later this month.
But in collaboration with the University of Yakutsk, the lab in the Novosibirsk region is now searching for paleoviruses in prehistoric animals, including mammoths, elk, dogs, partridges, rodents and hares, furthering study into virus evolution.
The chief of the university’s Mammoth Museum lab, Maxim Cheprasov, said in a press release that the recovered animals had already been the subject of bacterial studies. “We are conducting studies on paleoviruses for the first time.”
Finding prehistoric animals in permafrost is happening more often as climate change warms the Arctic at a faster pace than the rest of the world, thawing the ground in some areas that have stored ancient viruses for millennia.
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In Siberia’s region of Yakutia, melting permafrost was likely to yield up even more treasures, The Guardian reported in 2016, with the number of reported prehistoric finds rising “severalfold” in the previous decade as warm and wet weather contributed to the thaw. A pair of frozen three-month-old puppies found in 2011 drew global interest to scientific and cultural secrets to be gleaned from such animals.
In Russia, indigenous peoples have rights to hunt for ancient remains on ancestral lands. They now search for mammoth tusks to sell direct to China, where the ivory — now in demand, given trade bans on elephant ivory — is fashioned into jewellery, trinkets, knives and other decorations, the Guardian says.
Woolly mammoth ivory up to 30,000 years old and preserved in the permafrost in the Yakutia region makes up 80 per cent of Russia’s trade in a largely unregulated market worth more than US$50 million a year, Russian officials told the Guardian. If any paleoviruses still exist in the animals and are able to revive themselves, any number of unknown diseases could be released.
In other parts of the world, scientists are studying glacial microbes. Two ice core samples from 50 metres deep in the Guliya ice cap on the Tibetan Plateau were collected in 1992 and 2015, and analysis revealed 33 groups of virus genuses. Of these, 28 were previously unknown to science. According to the study, melting glaciers are releasing microbes and viruses that have been trapped for tens to hundreds of thousands of years.
Chantal Abergel, a researcher in environmental virology at the French National Centre for Scientific Research, led a team that revived a 30,000-year-old giant virus from permafrost, showing that it could still infect its target, a single-celled amoeba.