Giant Viruses are Thawing Out in the Arctic

Whether or not you believe in global warming and global climate change, it is undeniable that the polar icecaps are melting at an accelerated rate.  As this happens, melting arctic ice is releasing organisms that have not been seen on Earth in thousands of years.

In 1992, researchers found several giant viruses in a sample of 30,000-year-old permafrost.  They were so large that the scientists initially dismissed them as bacteria; it was not until 2003 that the organisms were correctly identified.

(Unlike bacteria, viruses are not technically classified as living organisms because they do not contain mechanisms for reproducing.  Instead, they take over other cells, using those cells’ own processes to create more viruses.  Smallpox, measles, rabies, hepatitis, ebola and even influenza are all viruses.)

Mimivirus, at 600 nanometers across, is twice the width of normal viruses and larger than many bacteria.  It was the first virus discovered to have particles large enough to be visible under a light microscope.

Mollivirus siberium is about 30 times bigger than the average virus.  While the HIV virus (which causes AIDS) is composed of nine genes, mollivirus sibericum contains more than 500 genes.

Researchers are using Agilent equipment, including an Agilent Bioanalyzer and DNA LabChip, to profile and analyze these newly discovered viruses.

The bad news is that even after 30,000 years, the viruses are still functional and capable of infecting their hosts.  The good news is that they do not contain any human pathogens.  In other words, they are not harmful to humans and cannot infect people.  Instead, they infect various amoebae.  So these giant prehistoric viruses should not inspire any fear or horror on the part of readers, but they are tremendously interesting to researchers.


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