Resurrecting the Past

NDSU Microbiology
by NDSU Microbiology

Guest Blogger, Autumn Kraft, VMS Undergrad

One of my favorite movies growing up was Jurassic Park. The clever scientists worked to find a way to reconstruct the DNA of long-dead dinosaurs to resurrect these ancient beasts. But when I began investigating the theory behind the science in this film, I quickly became disappointed. Turns out, merging frog DNA with the degraded DNA of dinosaurs is not a very plausible way to recreate these complex creatures. DNA is not a very hardy part of life; it degrades over time, so the millions of years separating the dinosaurs and us is way too long for DNA. But what if the time distance is shorter? Or what if the organism’s genetic information is less complex?

Recently, researchers drilling in Siberia and northern Canada unearthed ice cores filled with many different samples across time. They reported in late October that a sample of caribou feces yielded a new find. The caribou likely fed on plants that were infected with a virus that was preserved in the animal’s feces for an estimated 700 years. After some intense lab work, the researchers were able to replicate this virus from the samples. From there, they introduced the virus to a tobacco plant. And the virus successfully infected the plant! This got me incredibly excited about other work being done to bring back ancient organisms.

I continued on my path and read a related article about a giant, 30,000-year-old virus recovered from Siberian permafrost. The organism, named Pithovirus sibericum, was able to infect amoebas and measured about 1.5 μm long, larger than the known pandoraviruses of today. After they revived this virus, and gave it an amoeba to infect, it did it without hesitation. As I continued reading this article, I became slightly concerned.

While it might be exciting to uncover and bring back these organisms from extinction, there are some caveats that arise when working with something that could threaten current ecosystems. A serious look back to the Jurassic Park series reminded me that even though the dinosaur resurrection was revolutionary, many paid the ultimate price.

And it does not stop at the large animals that ran around eating people. Disease has always been the biggest threat to life and bringing back these infectious agents might pose risky consequences.

With viral extraction from ice happening from Siberia to Antarctica, lots of studies can be conducted to see what lies beneath the surface. But the hopes to uncover as much as we can, equates to uncovering a pebble at the base of a mountain. The number of species that have existed is probably innumerable, as well as the potential for them to be infective to current species. The controlled environment of the lab is a slight comfort since protocols exist to prevent contamination, but there are other concerns.

Thawing of the permafrost is an increasing risk as the global climate has been shifting. The introduction of ancient viruses released from this ice poses a risk only if they find their niche in the environment. While it is not entirely impossible, the risk of having a re-introduction of these organisms is still very minimal.

My excitement for visiting a park filled with wonders like Tyrannosaurus Rex or Brachiosaurus has been packed away, but I am still curious to see what organisms we can successfully restore. The worry of reviving some pandemic for humans is mostly unlikely at this point, but it is good for everyone to be cautious. I do not want someone one day to say we were too preoccupied with whether or not we could that we didn’t stop to think if we should.

Pithovirus Sketch: Pavel Hrdlička, Wikipedia

This entry is part of the MICR 354 (Scientific Writing) student-blog series.