Deep in the Siberian permafrost, the giants have been frozen.
“Giant”, though, being a relative term—these are viruses that measure more than half a micron, which, for this type of life, is spectacularly large.
A little over a decade ago, a team of scientists in France discovered the first giant virus; since then, they have identified a only couple more. In the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, they report on their newest find, Mollivirus sibericum, which measures .6 microns. And, they say, they’re thinking about waking it up.
Where do giant viruses come from? As Radiolab explains, they may once have been much more common—the smaller viruses we’re familiar with may have actually shrunk down from giant viruses into the teeny systems of today.
Like modern viruses, these frozen giant viruses do have the potential to infect people. Part of the reason that the scientists want to defrost the giant virus in safe lab conditions is to better understand it, before warming Arctic conditions open up permafrost for oil drilling and viruses like this one are released unwittingly.
Should this worry us? Maybe. “The fact that two different viruses retain their infectivity in prehistorical permafrost layers should be of concern in a context of global warming,” the scientists write in their abstract. “Giant viruses’ diversity remains to be fully explored.”
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