9
$\begingroup$

Some interesting research in reactivating mammoth genetic material (https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-40546-1) made me wonder what risks are inherent (or are not inherent) in reviving older genomes that may have integrated latent viral code?

Are there potential biohazards in this line of research, where dormant viruses that have otherwise gone extinct (along with the extinct host) and which now may have the potential to be reactivated? Not just in terms of zoonoses that infect across species, but also viruses that infect modern animals that are more closely related or have relatively common ancestry (e.g., from mammoth to elephant).

Could a disease be brought back via this kind of research? Or are the conditions for waking latent viruses from starting material of this kind just not possible to recreate in a lab setting?

Edit: To clarify what I mean by potential biohazard in relation to this question: Experimental conditions result in a latent virus going into lytic phase. The virus is a communicable pathogen; it spreads outside the laboratory environment; it causes sickness or death to living organisms to the extent that it creates a public health, ecological, or other crisis of significance. For background, please also see: Cambridge, The Free Dictionary, and Wikipedia.

$\endgroup$
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I'm sure the extent to which this might constitute and answer, but scientists have in fact resurrected (to some extent) viruses that were otherwise extinct, including an influenza virus and an endogenous retrovirus. $\endgroup$ – canadianer Mar 22 at 23:56
2
+25
$\begingroup$

First, I don't understand why you are more worried about viruses of extinct species, instead of ancient viruses of species that haven't gone extinct. Clearly the infectious potential of the latter is greater for the current species. I haven't heard a peep in published literature about the dangers of resurrecting mammoth viruses, but surely recreating (in 2005) the 1918 influenza did stir some fairly substantial safety debates.

In general, working with ancient DNA (aDNA) does require some safety precautions, but mainly because of the risk of contaminating the aDNA (with modern DNA)-.

Furthermore, I'm not aware of any research having resurrected an ancient virus from an extinct species aDNA (your specific scenario), but one ~5-million y.o. retrovirus (dubbed Phoenix) was assembled from current human DNA (in 2006); the authors were a little worried as to its infectious potential, so they engineered it so it couldn't replicate more than once.

More commonly, the genome of less ancient virus strains is being fairly routinely reassembled from e.g. from mummies, skeletons, or even packrat middens in order to study the evolution of common viral diseases. Most of this goes on without any safety controversies, as far as I can tell. Less commonly, ancient viruses of various species are found fairly intact in permafrost which does also stir some safety discussions (regarding the handling of permafrost).

So is your scenario possible in theory? Yes. Are experts worried about it? Not that I've heard...

$\endgroup$
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ About your leading sentence "...I don't understand why you are more worried..." There's no evidence of that being the case in the question whatsoever; it seems personal, gratuitous, and unnecessary. But nonetheless, +1 for the "...the authors were a little worried..." example. $\endgroup$ – uhoh Mar 25 at 11:25
  • $\begingroup$ If you would like to edit your answer to include just what is relevant to my question, I'll be happy to mark your answer as "accepted". Thanks again for answering! $\endgroup$ – Alex Reynolds Mar 26 at 1:23
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexReynolds: and what would that be? There's no research or even an opinion (except mine) directly on your question. It's circumstantial evidence (on related issues) basically supporting my opinion. $\endgroup$ – Fizz Mar 26 at 1:26
1
$\begingroup$

Are there potential biohazards in this line of research, where dormant viruses that have otherwise gone extinct (along with the extinct host) and which now may have the potential to be reactivated?

There are always potential biohazards. If you dig into the unknown, you can't tell in advance what you can find. Said that I would like to point the attention to the fact that we don't know all the viruses already in existence, nor the ones that evolve every day.

You get in contact with new viruses during your everyday life anyway. How much more hazard would come from ancient viruses? I would say, not much but I can't point to any specific supporting experiment, so, it's just my opinion.

Could a disease be brought back via this kind of research?

Hardly. Lot's of parameters (an overview here) must be just right to have a virus spreading and cause disease. Viruses are usually very attuned to cells metabolism and environmental factors. Current parameters are probably very different from the original ones so, even if an ancient virus can be "revived", its ability to infect and spread would definitely be hindered.

Or are the conditions for waking latent viruses from starting material of this kind just not possible to recreate in a lab setting?

There are no standard conditions to awaken a dormant virus, or in general to produce viruses. Each virus is different and it will require specific conditions (here some examples on Lentivirus and Adenovirus). In theory, if all the required viral proteins can be expressed in a compatible cell host, then viable viral particles can be produced (Negev virus, Rhopalosiphum padi virus, Black queen-cell virus). "Reviving" an ancient virus is definitely possible with enough effort, but again, the rate of success will differ from virus to virus.

$\endgroup$

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.