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Recreating Frozen Viruses From Reindeer Scat

Oct 29, 2014 04:41 PM EDT
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It's alive! Resurrecting a pair of viruses from 700-year-old caribou feces may not sound like the best idea in the world, but that's exactly what a team of scientists did, according to a new study.

The study, recently published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), details how researchers successfully recreated two ancient viruses from cryogenically preserved materials.

It's important to note that these researchers, led by experts from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), did not pull a viral version of "Frankenstein" just to do it. These scientists, far from mad, chose to recreate the seven-centuries-old viruses as a proof of concept, where being able to recreate the viral ancestors of modern illnesses can provide valuable information about viral diversity and evolution.

According to the study, the viruses were initially recovered from caribou feces, which had been preserved in layers of ice that had accumulated in the Selwyn mountains of the Yukon and Northern Territories over the last 700 years.

The viruses had not affected the horned beasts themselves, but rather had likely infected their food, resembling a modern-day geminivirus, which infects plants. After reconstructing the viruses, they found that these illnesses can still infect modern tobacco plants today.

"The find confirms that virus particles are very good 'time capsules' that preserve their core genomic material, making it likely that many prehistoric viruses are still infectious to plants, animals or humans [today]," Jean-Michel Claverie of the Aix-Marseille University, who was not involved in the study, told New Scientist.

He adds that the success of the study serves as a reminder that some caution is required when drilling and mining for resources in the Arctic. You never know what kind of biological terror might be freed from the ice.

Still, study researcher Eric Delwart added that he and his colleagues also found that these revived viruses are not exactly suited to compete in the modern age, in which their viral mechanisms are far less refined compared to modern counterparts.

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