Giant parasitic viruses

I love science fiction as a genre. A little while ago I read a very old science fiction novel – written in 1938 – by John W. Campbell called Who Goes There? It has been made into a film a few times called The Thing.

The story goes like this: A group of scientists are working in Antarctica and they discover an alien spacecraft that has been frozen in the ice for some 20 million years. They defrost the alien pilot thinking it will be dead but instead the thing returns to life as a scary creature that can assume the shape of anything it kills. This leads to paranoia and distrust as the researchers start to suspect each other as being taken over by the alien but none wants to be alone. Some even doubt themselves as being still human. It’s a great premise for a story but an article making the rounds today has made this less fiction and more non-fiction.

So I’m not talking about an alien spacecraft here but something possibly just as fearsome. Global warming is melting the permafrost and scientists have recently discovered giant viruses that parasitise amoebas. Although harmless to humans, they are still infectious and they beg the question: what else lies frozen in the ice? From Science this week:

The authors named the virus Pithovirus because Pandora’s jar was called a “pithos” in ancient Greek.This virus was revived from a Siberian permafrost sample and infects amoebas. Although named for the jar and not its contents, given its origins, this discovery hints that viruses more evil than Pithovirus might be revived as the tundra melts.

I must credit the blogger at ecocrap for bringing it to my attention first with How we are going to pay.

17 thoughts on “Giant parasitic viruses

    1. Actually Graham, something I didn’t mention in my post probably because of bias, is that we may find something useful to us frozen in the ice like medicine.

  1. I first read about this three days ago on the ABC online..here..

    http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-03-04/30000-year-old-virus-from-permafrost-is-reborn/5296436

    It reinforced my belief that many science journalists really lack some basic scientific training. “reborn” “revive” “wakening” are some of the words used to describe the virus, which isn’t actually a living thing, and this is bad enough but it was this paragraph that had my head spinning like Linda Blair…

    “The team thawed the virus and watched it replicate in a culture in a petri dish, where it infected a simple single-cell organism called an amoeba.”

    wtf? Maybe I’m just being picky? Anyway it was good to see Scientific American reporting it properly. It will be interesting to see what else starts appearing in the melting permafrost. Maybe we’ll get to see triffids or the Thing which would be scary enough, but right now I’m most concerned about methane.

    1. The ABC article is quite funny. It makes the virus sound like a born again Christian. But I agree that methane is probably the most fearsome thing at the moment.

    1. I’ve never seen the movie, Sherri but I’m now quite interested. The older horror films are often particularly entertaining because the special effects are so dated.

      1. Actually the SFX for The Thing (the original 1980 version) are probably the creepiest, most actually horrifying sci-fi horror effects in my experience. The computer simulations are a bit hokey but the rest holds up pretty well. It’s also pretty true to the original 1938 novella – far more than the other attempts (1951 and 2011).

        As for being immune to ancient revived viruses – I don’t think so. If we’re susceptible to animal-borne viruses from deforestation, I think our immune systems won’t be prepared for something that hasn’t been encountered for tens of thousands of years.

      2. Thanks, the 1980s version it is then. I will seek it out. The fear factor in this story is probably more about the suspense than the special effects anyway.

      3. Definitely 1980’s vers. Kurt Russell does a good job as lead and the SFX are very impressive for their time, definitely creepy and some good surprises. Enjoy.

        If you like suspense you could try “The Fog” and “Blood Simple”. 🙂

      4. P.S. There have been some very poor quality DVD versions of Blood Simple on sale. Worth shopping around. I’m told that a Region 1 vers is best.

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