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A giant ancient virus was just uncovered in melting ice — and it won’t be the last

Don't panic just yet. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press via AP)

Let's get one thing out of the way really quickly: The ancient, giant virus recently discovered in melting Arctic ice is not going to kill you.

But here's the bad news: It's not the first ancient virus that scientists have found frozen — it's the fourth found since 2003. And you can be sure it won't be the last. And with climate change causing massive melts, it's not totally alarmist to suggest that something deadly might one day emerge from a long, icy sleep.

As if climate change didn't already suck enough, right?

The newly discovered, 30,000-year-old virus is reported in a paper published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of SciencesMollivirus sibericum is a whopping .6 microns across, making it what scientists call a giant virus. In addition to towering over modern viruses (and even some bacteria), size-wise, these ancient microbes had a lot more genes.

[This blood test can tell you every virus you’ve ever had]

M. sibericum has more than 500 genes, compared to just 9 in HIV. One of the previously discovered giant viruses, Pandoravirus, has a staggering 2,500 genes. Scientists are still figuring out what that means for a virus, and what it says about the way viruses evolved — and how we should deal with them. (You can hear all about these weirdly large viruses in this recent episode of Radiolab.)

If scientists can confirm that humans and animals won't be susceptible to sibericum, they're going to go ahead and wake it up so they can study it. But they're proceeding with caution. These viruses may be ancient, but they've also been kept in nature's own deep freezer. They want to be sure they're not reviving anything potentially harmful.

"A few viral particles that are still infectious may be enough, in the presence of a vulnerable host, to revive potentially pathogenic viruses," lead researcher Jean-Michel Claverie of France's National Centre for Scientific Research told the AFP.

[How the Black Death turned from a tummy bug to a deadly plague]

But careful scientists may not be enough to save us from ancient microbes. Claverie and his colleagues worry that these viruses, which now seem to be fairly common in permafrost, could be released on their own by way of melting ice or human activity — oil drilling, for example. 

"We cannot rule out that distant viruses of ancient Siberian human (or animal) populations could reemerge as arctic permafrost layers melt and/or are disrupted by industrial activities," the paper states.

That may be a bit of a leap. Other scientists have pointed out that this would require some really bad luck on humanity's part, and that we should probably focus on the more immediate effects of climate change. Fingers crossed that we keep finding giant viruses that advance scientific study without stumbling upon anything deadly. 

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