When researcher Eric Delwart read about the many things that could be preserved in ice cores, he told NPR he realized he might be able to find buried treasure: caribou poop.
Now, the work has paid off. The well-preserved, 700-year-old remains of, yes, caribou poop that Delwart found contained DNA that he and some colleagues were able to extract. Eventually, they used it to reconstitute an entire plant virus.
“I mean we’re constantly shoving viruses down our throat and if you look at poo samples from humans and from animals you will find a lot of viruses,” Delwart, a researcher at Blood Systems Research Institute in San Francisco, told NPR.
The news, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is both exciting and scary: The virus “time capsules” found in Canada will undoubtedly help inform research on the evolution of viruses. But it also raises the possibility of unleashing ancient viruses as ice melts or Arctic regions are drilled.
“The find confirms that virus particles are very good ‘time capsules’ that preserve their core genomic material, making it likely that many prehistoric viruses are still infectious to plants, animals or humans,” Jean-Michel Claverie, of the Aix-Marseille University School of Medicine in France, told New Scientist. “This again calls for some caution before starting to drill and mine Arctic regions at industrial scales.”
Although Delwart’s team was able to get the buried virus to infect a type of tobacco plant, he told NPR that this particular virus isn’t dangerous.
“There’s a theoretical risk of this, and we know that the nucleic acid of the virus was in great shape in our sample,” Delwart told New Scientist. “But old viruses could only re-emerge if they have significant advantages over the countless perfect viruses we have at present.”