So the big question is, why would anyone do something so seemingly crazy? Scientists don’t know much about how viruses evolve and understanding the structure of ancient viruses would increase knowledge of virus evolution. However, scientists have sequenced only a small number of ancient viruses.
Photo credit: Spring Hill Cottage
The problem scientists run into is that reconstructing ancient viruses is difficult because they change very rapidly. This makes it hard to see how new sequences are related to one another. If that wasn’t problem enough, the nucleic acid content of ancient viruses can degrade quickly.
In a quest to find well preserved ancient viruses, the team analyzed layers of caribou feces in a 4,000-year-old ice patch in Canada’s Selwyn Mountains. When examining nucleic acids in frozen fecal pellets extracted from a 700-year-old ice layer, they identified two sets of well preserved viral sequences.
Speaking in this context, researchers from the Blood Systems Research Institute in San Francisco stated that they have learned that viruses can remain infectious for centuries.
Eric Delwart wrote in a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: "We demonstrate that genetic material from ancient viruses associated with caribou fecal matter was cryogenically preserved for at least seven centuries, and that the cloned DNA genome of one of these viruses replicated and spread systematically in an extant plant."
Discovery of latent smallpox virus genes in 1990 in 400-year-old mummies also indicated that viruses can survive for hundreds or thousands of years.
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