Science & Tech

Revived ancient virus raises concerns about melting permafrost

  • Nov 13, 2014
  • 319 words
  • 2 minutes
Expand Image
Advertisement

As Canada enters flu season, it may seem difficult to care about any other virus, least of all a virus found in 700-year-old frozen caribou dung. But the latter virus, just recently unearthed in the Northwest Territories, was revived from ancient scraps of DNA and has now successfully infected a modern-day tobacco plant.

It started when a team of researchers traipsed into the Selwyn Mountains, chasing artifacts. They suspected that aboriginals had hunted on the ice patches long ago, since caribou gather on them in the summer to seek relief from the heat and mosquitoes.

Their theory paid off. The researchers uncovered stone tools, wooden arrow shafts, and leg-hold traps made of sinew. They also found caribou dung embedded in the layers of subarctic ice. Intrigued, the researchers decided to look deeper. The dung was sent for analysis, and the ancient virus was found and brought back to life.

“Studying the ancient can help us understand the future,” says Brian Moorman, a University of Calgary professor and Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. “With these new findings we might be able to understand how viruses evolve over longer periods of time.”

According to Moorman, this vegetarian ‘franken-virus’ is not one we would see in our environment today; rather, it’s an “invasive species from another time.”

This is worrisome to Moorman because half of Canada is underlain by permafrost, and the climate’s rising thermometer could release some prehistoric and potentially harmful microbes and infectious agents.

“As our environment changes, it’s good to know what we have around us, so we can be prepared for how these changes might impact us.”

And changes are happening. One particular ice patch that Moorman and the other researchers stood on three years ago was radiocarbon-dated to be 4000 years old; it has since disappeared.

“It certainly makes us think about what the future will look like.”

Advertisement

Related Content

Coniferous trees lean at different angles in the snow

Environment

Arctic permafrost is thawing. Here’s what that means for Canada’s North — and the world

Permafrost thaw is widespread, accelerating and irreversible. With it comes visible effects on the ecology, hydrology and landscapes, and communities of the North.

  • 2757 words
  • 12 minutes
A retrogressive thaw slump on Qikiqtaruk-Herschel Island

Environment

The big thaw

Arctic permafrost is thawing. What does that mean for the North — and the rest of us? 

  • 1323 words
  • 6 minutes
teachers caring for students sick with the Spanish Flu

History

La grande faucheuse

L’histoire méconnue de la grippe espagnole de 1918 et notre état de préparation à la prochaine grande pandémie

  • 3647 words
  • 15 minutes
teachers caring for students sick with the Spanish Flu

History

The outbreak and its aftermath

The little-known story of the 1918 Spanish Flu and how we're preparing for the next great pandemic

  • 3183 words
  • 13 minutes