Russia is seeking to unlock unknown prehistoric viruses up to 50,000-years-old by extracting biological material from carcasses of ancient animals frozen in permafrost.
Scientists from the Kremlin’s equivalent of Porton Down are this week taking samples from a collection of beasts preserved in ice which have been found in recent years.
They are working with the remains of extinct woolly mammoths and hairy rhinos, as well as prehistoric dogs, horses, elk, rodents and hares.
The oldest animal is believed to be a 50,000-year-old lemming.
Work is spearheaded by former Cold War research plant
The work is spearheaded by Vector State Research Centre of Virology and Biotechnology, once a Cold War biological warfare research plant established by Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.
The high-security facility near Novosibirsk in Siberia is currently developing Russia’s second Covid-19 vaccine to compete with better-known Sputnik V.
Scientists took 50 samples on Tuesday (local time) from ancient beasts, and expect to gather the same number tomorrow from carcasses held at the Mammoth Museum of Russia’s North-Eastern Federal University in Yakutsk, the world’s coldest city.
The work is separate from ongoing international research seeking to clone species such as the woolly mammoths and rhinos back to life by using DNA from the same sources.
"We want to find palaeo-viruses making it possible to start the development of palaeo-virology in Russia,” Vector scientist Dr Olesya Okhlopkova said.
The aim is to “conduct advanced research” in the “evolution of viruses”, but experts have previously warned that delving back into the past could pose a threat from zombie infections.
Scientists hope to learn 'significant trends' in viruses
Dr Okhlopkova took samples from the soft tissue of the long-gone animals.
She said they would attempt “whole genome sequencing, with which scientists can obtain data on the entire biodiversity of microorganisms in a sample.
“If the nucleic acids were not destroyed, we will be able to obtain data on their composition and establish how it changed, what was the evolutionary development of events,” she said.
They hope to understand “significant trends” in the development of viruses since prehistoric times to glean the “epidemiological potential of currently existing infectious agents”.
The animals have been found over the last decade or so as permafrost has thawed in the Arctic and subArctic.
"The first find with a selection of soft tissues was the Verkhoyansk horse in 2009," Dr Maxim Cheprasov, acting head of Mammoth Museum, said.
“The scientific value of the find lies in the fact that its complete nuclear genome was deciphered, thanks to which the history of the origin of the modern Yakut horse became known.”
These horses are able to survive in temperatures as low as -60C.
“The Mammoth Museum has long-standing ties with the Vector…" Museum scientist Dr Sergey Fedorov said.
“We hope that palaeo-viruses will be found and interesting discoveries in the world of viruses await us."
Vector once produced smallpox on an industrial scale, and still holds stocks, while also weaponising deadly Marburg.
In recent years the centre has been involved in efforts to find cures and antidotes to killers such as bubonic plague, anthrax, ebola, hepatitis B, HIV, SARS - and cancer.
It has developed Russia’s second Covid-19 vaccine called EpiVacCorona, which is soon to be mass produced.
The Siberian Times/Australscope
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