Scientists Infect Living Plants with a 700-Year-Old Virus
Could melting polar ice caps release killer viruses? A new study gives rise to a new and terrifying doomsday scenario as researchers from the Blood Systems Research Institute in San Francisco were able to infect living plants with a 700-year-old virus that was preserved in an ice patch.
Scientists have long theorized that viruses had the potential to remain infectious even after passing through the digestive tract of an animal. So in their search for ancient viruses, researcher Eric Delwart and his team unearthed caribou feces that were preserved in a 4,000-year-old ice path in the Canada Selwyn Mountains. They found that these feces contained two distinct partial virus genomes, one from an RNA and one from a DNA sequence.
Ice core containing preserved caribou feces, which in turn contained ancient virus genomes:
[Credit: Brian Moorman]
From the paper: "Viruses preserved in ancient materials provide snapshots of past viral diversity and a means to trace viral evolution through time... Our findings indicate that viral genomes may in some circumstances be protected from degradation for centuries."
They were able to reconstruct the entire genome of the latter virus, and introduced it to several living plants in order to learn more about the virus's behavior. The plants were, indeed, infected, although they did not show symptoms. The researchers speculated that the particular plant species they used, an herb and a close relative of tobacco, is not the virus's optimal host.
This study has frightening implications, particularly in the context of climate change. As the temperature of the planet continues to rise, the polar ice caps will melt, which has plenty of frightening implications on its own, but the researchers claim that it could also release viral particles into the environment, some of which may still be infectious.