Ancient viruses in permafrost unlocked in a former Soviet weapons laboratory

Russian scientists are trying to unravel the mystery of extinct viruses by looking at the remains of animals found in Siberian permafrost.

The Vector Institute in Siberia, together with the Northeastern Federal University of Yakutsk, has recently announced they are conducting paleovirus research for the first time.

Most recent research conducted in the Vector has focused on today’s pathogens with little interest in ancient bacteria, but this project will carefully study viruses that are now extinct, most of which will be recovered from animals found in Siberian permafrost. Their experiments began with a piece of soft tissue taken from a 4,450-year-old horse that was discovered in the Verkhoyansk region back in 2009. They also hope to extend their research to other animals, including the ancient moose, mammoth, prehistoric puppies, various rodents, ancient birds, rabbit – like mammals and others.

Through this work, Vector scientists say they hope to gain an understanding of the evolutionary history of long-extinct viruses, as well as gain insight into infectious agents that still inhabit the planet today.

The Vector Institute is a state biological research center with a very “vivid” history. During the Cold War, he is believed to be a leader in biological weapons research in the USSR. Today, he is conducting research on some of the deadliest viruses in the world, including the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19. They also helped develop EpiVacCorona, one of the leading COVID-19 vaccines developed in Russia.

One of them is an institute that was found in a remote corner of the Russian Novosibirsk region two official repositories for now an eradicated smallpox virus, and is the second headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia. Due to the threat of pathogens lying in it, the facility is considered a high-security laboratory, lined with reinforced concrete walls and strictly monitored.

Despite safety measures, accidents have occurred here. In 2019 a significant explosion was recorded in the Vector drive. Fortunately, there were no public health risks arising from the explosion. In another monstrous accident, a scientist at the facility died in 2004 after accidentally getting stuck with an Ebola-contaminated needle.

The study of permafrost-locked pathogens could become an increasingly urgent area of ​​study. With rising global temperatures due to climate change, especially in the Arctic region of the planet, huge amounts of ice, glaciers and permafrost are slowly thawing. This increases the possibility of the existence of potentially unknown microbial life, from viruses and bacteria to fungi and algae released into the environment. Although the scale of the threat is currently unknown, it is clearly a problem that scientists want to understand as soon as possible.