If paleovirology is making unprecedented advances these days, it is in part due to the melting of permafrost. This frozen layer of soil actually contains animal, vegetable and human remains that are thousands or even millions of years old. The Russian authorities are aware of the challenges in this area and have presented a new project through the Vektor National Research Center, which aims to analyze animal samples from permafrost in Russia, but also from other countries.
The premises of the Vektor laboratory in Siberia in the Novosibirsk region were once (in Soviet times) a center for the development of biological weapons. It is currently one of the few facilities that still has samples of the smallpox virus. The center has even developed a vaccine against Covid-19 that needs to be validated by Russian health authorities.
Soft tissue analysis
With its new mission, the Vektor Center, in cooperation with the Mammoth Museum in Yakutsk in central Siberia, will have the task of searching for prehistoric viruses. The aim is not only to determine the evolution of the latter, but also to lay the foundation for the Kremlin’s paleovirology program. To this end, the team will take samples from the corpses of prehistoric animals.
The samples (soft parts or from carcasses) are then placed in a test tube before they are the subject of a study using the methods of classical molecular biology. In particular, this step consists of isolating the nucleic acids and sequencing the genome.
A horse over 4000 years old
According to Olesya Okhlopkova, a researcher at the Vektor Science Center, this technique makes it possible to obtain data on the composition of nucleic acids and understand how they evolved over time. Note that an initial study has already been carried out. Many photos are available on this page.
Woolly mammoth, (3d illustration). Photo credit: Shutterstock / Dotted Yeti
It consisted of the analysis of the soft tissues of the Verkhoyansk horse, the remains of which were found in 2009 and kept in the Mammoth Museum. The 4,450-year-old corpse helped determine the origin of the modern Yakut horse. Indeed, the researchers managed to fully decipher the nuclear genome. Of course, they won’t stop there.
Lots of animals to study
Other animals that lived in the mammoth era will then be examined. Among them are the Omoloy moose, Malolyakhovsky mammoth, Tumat dogs, rodents, rabbits and many more. “Only bacteriological studies were carried out on these species. We are researching paleoviruses for the first time,” Maxim Cheprasov, head of the laboratory at the Mammoth Museum, told NEFU.