Russian researchers want to study ancient viruses from the Siberian permafrost

Russian state laboratory Vector has announced a new research project in which it will probe ancient animals frozen in the Siberian permafrost, looking for ancient. The aim of the project is to identify such viruses and conduct advanced research into virus evolution.

“We hope that interesting discoveries in the world of viruses await us, one researcher was quoted.”

The remains of many Paleolithic creatures are trapped in the icy grip of the Siberian permafrost. Aided by global warming that melted some of the ice, expeditions have uncovered the remains of numerous kinds of animals preserved by the freezing temperatures. The remains are interesting by themselves, but Russian researchers now want to probe even further, and look at what type of viruses these organisms may have hosted.

The study will be focused on remains discovered in 2009 in Yakutia, a vast region of north-eastern Siberia where remains of Paleolithic animals including mammoths, elk, dogs, partridges, rodents, hares, and many others have been discovered. The researchers will be probing these groups looking for ancient viruses, called paleoviruses.

“We are conducting studies on paleoviruses for the first time,” said Maxim Cheprasov, head of the Mammoth Museum laboratory at Yakutsk University, who added that they have already carried out several bacterial studies on the samples.

The research is a collaboration between Vector and the University of Yakutsk. The work began with analysis of tissues extracted from a prehistoric horse thought to be at least 4,500 years old. Researchers drill a tiny hole and take tissue samples, placing them in a test tube. They then carry out a series of analyses on this sample, from genome sequencing to isolation of total nucleic acids, to obtain data on the entire biodiversity of the microorganisms in the sample.

“If nucleic acids aren’t destroyed, we will be able to obtain data on their composition and establish how it changed, what was the evolutionary development of microorganisms. Vector researcher Olesya Okhlopkova explains in a press release. She adds that they will also “determine the epidemiological potential of currently existing infectious agents.”

Sergei Fedorov, one of the participating researchers, adds that the findings are kept in a special freezer at temperatures of -16 to -18 degrees Celsius (around 0-3 degrees Fahrenheit). Mammoths will be a point of particular interest for the project, but researchers will look at samples from various ancient animals. “We hope that interesting discoveries in the world of viruses await us,” says Fedorov

Vector is a secluded research institute that, in Soviet times, was weaponized and used in the Soviet biological warfare program. The laboratory made important progress in smallpox research, but also researched the production of various viruses and toxins. In post-Soviet times, the center focuses on vaccine research (for Hepatitis A or influenza, for instance), diagnosis systems, and other epidemiological research.

Vector also developed a COVID-19 vaccine (EpiVacCorona, not the Sputnik V) which was licensed in October in Russia and is scheduled to begin mass production in February.

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