I, For One, Welcome Our New Giant Viral Overlords

March 10, 2014

An ultrathin section of a Pithovirus particle in an infected Acanthameba castellanii cell observed by transmission electron microscopy with enhancement using the artistic filter ‘plastic packaging’ provided by Adobe Photoshop CS5.
(Image courtesy of Julia Bartoli and Chantal Abergel, IGS and CNRS-AMU)

Increasing human contact with remote areas and species in Africa  helped the AIDS virus leap the species barrier. Similarly, deadly hemorrhagic  fevers like Ebola and Marburg have made the jump, seemingly aided by increasing development and commerce in remote African areas.
We expect that exotic viruses will occasionally emerge from Asia as novel organisms find pathways into increasingly large scale and mechanized animal husbandry.
Now we have a whole new vector.

Globe and Mail:

French researchers who have revived a 30,000-year-old giant virus from a sample of Siberian permafrost are cautioning that the mining and drilling of northern regions could potentially free dormant pathogens out of the frozen soil.

“The thawing of permafrost either from global warming or industrial exploitation of circumpolar regions might not be exempt from future threats to human or animal health,” the researchers said in their paper published in this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Our results … substantiate the possibility that infectious viral pathogens might be released from ancient permafrost layers exposed by thawing, mining, or drilling,” the paper said.

“What we’re trying to say is to be careful when you go into layers that haven’t been disturbed in several thousand or even millions of years. We risk digging up things we don’t necessarily want to see,” Dr. Abergel said by telephone from her office at Aix-Marseille University.

The risks are slim but “are more than theoretical since we have shown that we can reactivate a virus from such an ancient sample,” she said.

She noted that other researchers are already studying outbreaks of Siberian anthrax among domestic reindeer to see if they are linked to climate warming and the proximity of burial grounds of cattle that died from that spore a century ago.

Other scientists not involved in the research praised the French team for discovering the new virus, but were divided about the paper’s warning words.

Jacqueline Goordial, a permafrost microbiologist at McGill University, said the French team had found a simple, clever way to extract the Pithovirus.

“As for the pathogenicity, it is a definite possibility to be considered. … We do have evidence that cells can survive these long time scales … so it is a possibility that this could be of concern.”

 ABC Australia:

Radiocarbon dating of the soil sample found that vegetation grew there more than 30,000 years ago, a time when mammoths and Neanderthals walked the Earth, according to a paper published in the US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

P. sibericum is, on the scale of viruses, a giant. It has 500 genes, whereas the influenza virus has only eight.

It is the first in a new category of viral whoppers, a family known as Megaviridae, alongside two other categories that already exist.

The virus gets its name from “pithos,” the ancient Greek word for a jar, as it comes in an amphora shape.

At 1.5 millionths of a metre, it is so big it can be seen through an optical microscope, rather than a more powerful electron microscope.

Unlike the flu virus, though, P. sibericum is harmless to humans and animals, and only infects a type of amoeba called Acanthamoeba, the researchers said.

The work shows that viruses can survive being locked up in the permafrost for extremely long periods, France’s National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) said in a press statement.

“It has important implications for public-health risks in connection with exploiting mineral or energy resources in Arctic Circle regions that are becoming more and more accessible through global warming,” it said.

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15 Responses to “I, For One, Welcome Our New Giant Viral Overlords”

  1. Gingerbaker Says:

    Billions of bacteria and viruses. Only a few of them pathogenic. And those that can be pathogenic are not usually pathogenic in normally healthy people. Soil is chock full of Pseudomonas, but most gardeners do become infected.

    Also, not exactly sure why pathogens humans have previously encountered would be particularly scary, especially considering what is actually going on right now with new multiply-resistant bacteria showing up everywhere.

    Unless…… we are talking about an ancient virus that causes………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… zombies!

  2. Gingerbaker Says:

    …gardeners do NOT become infected (!)

  3. dumboldguy Says:

    This is all way-out hypothetical stuff, and I’ve read much science fiction with similar plot lines—-long dead “beasties” from underground or the bottom of the ocean being dug up, viruses and bacteria like the Andromeda Strain, mutant sharks and piranha running amok.

    However, if I had read back when I was a kid that the arctic was going to be ice free in the summer in the twenty-teens, I would have thought that was “made up” also.

    To speak briefly to the biology involved, saying—-”Only a few of them pathogenic. And those that can be pathogenic are not usually pathogenic in normally healthy people”—-is naive.

    Mutations occur, and pathogens that are transported into populations that have not co-evolved can be devastating—-it is estimated that 90% of the indigenous Native American population was wiped out within decades by smallpox, measles, and other diseases brought from Europe by the colonists and transmitted to the “normally healthy people” who had not developed immunities. The occasional killer flu epidemics arise from mutations in less virulent flu strains.

    The next time you’re digging in your garden and you think you hear tiny voices saying “…….Brains!……I want brains!……”, pay attention—-it may not be your imagination (and remember to wash your hands).

  4. Gingerbaker Says:

    Naive? You think immunities are not likely to exist, even to non pathogenic bacteria, from ancient permafrost? Bacteria from 10,000 years ago?

    The odds of some bug being uncovered from permafrost that would actually be pathogenic to healthy people are infinitesimal. Worrying about such a thing being important in the AGW – when there are real multi-resistant bacteria running around right now – that is NOT a naive point.

    • dumboldguy Says:

      Did you not read my first paragraph? In which I said this was “way out” stuff? (because “way out” takes less time to type than “infinitesimal”). Perhaps naive was the wrong word—maybe you don’t fully understand the science.

      I don’t know what your science background is, but you need to think a bit. Any immunities to a “bug” that has been “buried” for 10,000 years have likely been long bred out of the human population. If it was actually pathogenic back when it was “buried”, a re-emergence could be a problem in the “way out infinitesimal hypothetical” sense. Fossil bacteria and viruses as old as several tens of thousands of years old have been reactivated, and some folks have claimed to have done that with bacterial spores from tens of MILLIONS of years ago.

      I assume by “multi-resistant”, you are referring to antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria? Yes, that is a serious problem in itself, but it has NO relationship to AGW, although it does grow out of the same roots—-man’s introduction of “modern” technology into a biosphere that was doing just fine without us. One small plus, if the “way out hypothetical infinitesimal” DOES occur, the bugs from beneath the earth will NOT be resistant to antibiotics (at least not in the beginning).

      PS This article has talked about both bacteria and virus “bugs”, and that can be confusing. Don’t forget that viruses are not killed by antibiotics—only bacteria can develop resistance.

      • Gingerbaker Says:

        “IF’ and “likely” – any kind of proof source would be welcome.

        Again – relative risk is (my) the issue here. Ancient thawed bugs not very frightening. New bugs with 5 beta lactamase inhibitors, multi-class resistant – that is scary and a significant risk ( see: http://haicontroversies.blogspot.com/2014/03/were-in-post-antibiotic-age.html)

        I have a B.S. in Biological Sciences, eight years doing basic research with a few pub credits in unimportant papers. Went into pharmaceutical sales, where I sold IV and oral antibiotics for many years.

        So, I have a pretty good handle on the science.

        • dumboldguy Says:

          I made my 1:56 reply without having seen this from you. I agree with you and think the whole idea is pretty silly, myself. These folks are just playing with someone’s grant money, and it’s a rather big overreach for Peter to even post this on Crock—-fun but inconsequential.

          See my 1:56 comment and reexamine your “handle” on the science, though.

    • dumboldguy Says:

      PS Humans don’t need “immunities to non pathogenic bacteria”, whether they come from from ancient permafrost or their gardens today.

      Non-pathogenic means NOT disease-causing or harmful to the body, therefore no immunities would have been developed, and won’t exist, period. No “likely” involved.

      • Gingerbaker Says:

        That is not right either. pathogenic means can cause disease in a person, not all people.

        Pneumocystis jeroveci causes pneumocystis pneumonia in HIV patients. It is generally non pathogenic in the general population. Because we have an antibody response to it that is almost always successful.

        Any bug can be pathogenic in a not healthy person. We are exposed to, and have antibody responses to millions of strains of bugs. We inherited most of this immunity, we are not a tabula rasa.

        Whether that immunity would include some ancient giant virus or bacterium I have no idea – but I would not, as you have asserted, say that we likely no longer have an antibody response to ancient tundra bugs.

        • dumboldguy Says:

          First, let me say I don’t know why we’re arguing, since it seems we’re in general agreement nearly all the time on Crock. Since no one else seems interested in this post, we may as well exercise our brains a bit here. At least we’re not engaged in “Omnosemantics”—-neither one of is totally wrong (or right), although I know I’m righter and you’re wronger, and we may have to get into some omnosemantics over that. LOL

          You say, “That is not right either. pathogenic means can cause disease in a person, not all people”. My turn—-That is not right—-by definition, a pathogen is a harmful causative agent, and a human pathogen WILL cause a disease in ALL humans. Except for those few in which it doesn’t—–and they are much in demand by researchers who are looking for “cures”. The more contagious and virulent the pathogen, the more serious and lethal the “disease” it causes. You can’t just flip that around as you have, especially when you are picking humans whose entire immune systems are compromised in the first place. HIV patients are in danger from nearly everything, and as you said, “Any bug can be pathogenic in a not healthy person”.

          “We are exposed to, and have antibody responses to millions of strains of bugs”. We don’t need antibody responses to most of those bugs because they are not harmful to us and the body’s immune system does not develop an immune response to them. A significant portion of out body weight is made up of bacteria with with we live in a symbiotic relationship.

          “We inherited most of this immunity, we are not a tabula rasa”. A misstatement of fact and more overreach. Except for sickle cell and malaria, humans inherit almost NO “immunity”(and sickle cell isn’t related to the immune system anyway—it’s a blood thing), especially to the top killer diseases on the planet.
          That’s why newborns need to be immunized, and one of the big reasons human populations have exploded in the less developed nations after immunization programs were begun. What IS inherited more often are disorders of the immune system, defects that cause the body to attack itself or make it unable to fight off pathogens in the normal fashion, and they are not that common.

          “Whether that immunity would include some ancient giant virus or bacterium I have no idea – but I would not, as you have asserted, say that we likely no longer have an antibody response to ancient tundra bugs”. Since the whole thing of zombie bugs from the tundra is pie in the sky, it’s immaterial, but IF one did appear and it WAS a human pathogen, someone had better get to work quick on a vaccine, because immunization will be our only hope (not anything we “inherited”). I stand by my “assertion”—-it is not “bald” (although I’m getting there myself).

          • redskylite Says:

            It’s not that I’m not interested, but I’m absolutely “gobsmacked” , overwhelmed and speechless, apart from sea-level rise, invasion from the starving (and probably armed) mid latitudes, giant reservoirs of methane hydrates, heatstroke, cessation of marine life and other species, I now have to consider ancient giant viruses lurking menacingly at each pole. To think that all we had to worry about a few years ago was the cold war. The sun’s intensity and distance from Earth (and the odd volcano) was in mostly charge of the climate in the good old days.

      • andrewfez Says:

        I would say that the pathogenicity is more a function of how elegantly and efficiently a particular tissue deals with a particular antigen. If i lick my hand and swallow some staph epidermis (a common bacteria on the skin), if my stomach acid doesn’t kill ‘em then perhaps some lipase, amylase, or protease will, or perhaps the CPY3A4 enzyme will damage part of it, or more than likely i have IG-related antibodies that tag it for destruction in the GI mucus, which have been doing such for so long (as the bacteria is so common to my skin/lips) that they are damn good at their job and I’ll never die of a staph epidermis related sepsis or hemorrhagic ulceration.

        E coli, whilst it is perfectly happy, living in symbiosis with me in my colon, too will be destroyed if it attempts to venture across the lumen into my blood stream. Sometimes E. coli will find it’s way into the otherwise sterile urinary tract and start to multiply, unchecked (by other strains it competes against in the colon). Though it’s relatively benign in the colon, it can cause a simple urinary tract infection accompanied by local inflammation, burning, urgency, etc.

        Same with the staph epidermis: it’s fine on the skin – no problem; but if it finds it’s way to the prostate gland then boom – prostatitis – the gland becomes palpable, irritated, inflamed and swollen, and chocked full of white blood cells.

        Here we have cases where some bacteria are not pathogenic on some tissue (skin and colon), but are pathogenic in other tissue (urinary tract lumen, bladder, prostate, etc.). If a common bacteria on the skin or colon tries to cross into the sterile parts of the body (blood stream, organs), the immune system kills them with such proficiency that they are not considered pathogenic. I would imagine the components of the immune system that eat staph epidermis that have ventured too far down into the skin are so robust that even in immunocompromised patients (T-cell dysfunction/destruction, etc.) these components still work at a significant enough capacity that one could say that staph epidermis is generally not pathogenic (unless it gets in the prostate; then look out!).

    • andrewfez Says:

      I think the normal human gets about 12 antigenic exposures/immuno-responces per day. So, pretty much every day, you’re naturally getting about 12 immunization ‘shots’. The immune system is pretty excellent at dealing with a constant supply of new information.


  5. On pathogenicity, I have published a few papers from my work on plant pathogenic fungi in tropical fruit crops. It is true at least in the case of fungi, that anything can be pathogenic in another individual given the right conditions. Apart from the usual cultural conditions required for growth and reproduction, the overriding factor is the defense system of the potential host. It is and has always been an arms race with natural selection being first and foremost. While not as plastic as bacteria and viruses, fungi do mutate into different races both randomly and through selection pressures and like all other critters, it has resulted in generalists and specialists. There is certainly nothing rocket surgery-like in anything I have said. The interesting story I have though is that one of the people I used to work with nearly died from a fungal brain infection caused by a very common “non-pathogenic” soil fungi, Curvularia, the spores of which, most of us may have in our noses at any given time. This guy was not immuno-compromised in any way and was one of only 5-6 people in the world to have ever had a brain infection from it. Anyway, for me, I’m not concerned that some Arctic pathogen, long hidden, is going to cause any global pandemics, but I certainly wouldn’t rule it out either. All the other stuff going on in the Arctic is way scarier.

    • dumboldguy Says:

      “All the other stuff going on in the Arctic is way scarier”. My thought exactly. The brain-eating amoebas in MN and your coworker’s situation would be super-scary IF they were widespread, but they aren’t. I have nightmares over what we see going on in the Arctic—the casualties will be beyond counting.


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