While pandemics may become more frequent and deadly in the future, could the solution come from the past? This is partly what the Russian state laboratory Vektor, which has just started research on prehistoric viruses extracted from permafrost, hopes.
A permafrost is soil that remains permanently frozen for at least two consecutive years. It is currently found on nearly 17% of land surfaces … But there are fewer and fewer. For several decades, we have indeed observed a degradation of permafrost due to the global warming. As a result, researchers expect that some of the organic carbon – contained in these soils – will be released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide or methane. However, these are not the only “threats” that may emerge.
For several years now, many creatures frozen since the last ice age have indeed been updated again as the Siberian permafrost warms. Mammoths are naturally found, but also remains of wolves, or horses. A few weeks ago, Russian media also reported the discovery of a young woolly rhino in Yakutia.
Analysis of these animals could tell us more about the ancient megafauna that once lived in these frozen lands. But that’s not all. All these remains could indeed harbor ancient pathogens that could provide us with valuable information.
Researchers at the Russian state laboratory Vektor, located in the Novosibirsk region (Siberia), are well aware of this. This is why they start researching the possible paleo-virus still present in the tissues of these animals.
Remember that this laboratory is one of the two rare facilities in the world to store the smallpox virus. It has also enabled the development of a vaccine against the coronavirus, called EpiVacCorona, authorized since October in Russia.
This work will allow “to assess the diversity of ancient microorganisms, of which DNA and RNA could be conserved ”, and of “determine the epidemiological potential of currently existing infectious agents ”, said laboratory officials in a statement.
In collaboration with Yakutsk University, researchers from this laboratory began initial analyzes a few weeks ago, focusing on tissues extracted from a prehistoric horse about 6,500 years old discovered in 2009 in Yakutia (remains visible above).
Eventually, they also plan to study the remains of mammoths, elks, dogs, rodents, hares and other prehistoric animals.