Ancient Siberian horse remains tested for evidence of paleoviruses

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Tissue samples are taken from the remains of a 4450-year-old horse in the hopes of finding evidence of ancient viruses. Photo: Nina Sleptsova/North Eastern Federal University corporate media editorial office

Scientists in Russia have taken samples from the once-frozen remains of a 4500-year-old horse as part of a fresh project to look for ancient viruses in animals preserved in Siberia’s permafrost.

Researchers with the Russian state laboratory Vector and the North Eastern Federal University in Yakutsk hope they will find the DNA and RNA of paleoviruses in the animal remains, allowing them to learn more about the diversity of micro-organisims from thousands of years ago.

The samples to be used in the study, including the horse, are held in the university’s Mammoth Museum.

The work is the first step toward studying paleovirology in Russia, with scientists hoping they will learn more about the evolution of viruses.

The remains of the horse were the first chosen for the study. The frozen remains were found in the Verkhoyansk region in 2009, and dated at 4450 years old. The complete nuclear genome of the animal was deciphered, providing important insights into the origins of the modern Yakut horse.

For the latest research, a hole was created in the remains, from which soft-tissue samples were taken.

They were placed in a test tube and sent for molecular-based testing — the isolation of total nucleic acids and genome-wide sequencing — which is expected to provide data on the genetics and biodiversity of any micro-organisms in the tissue.

“If nucleic acids do not undergo destruction, we will be able to obtain data on their composition and establish how it changed, what was the evolutionary development of events,” said Olesya Okhlopkova, a researcher Vector’s Department of Biophysics and Environmental Research.

Ultimately, the data may yield important information on paleoviruses.

Maxim Cheprasov, who heads the laboratory at the Mammoth Museum, said in a statement that other animals will also be studied, including elk, mammoth, dogs, ancient partridge, various rodents, hare-like creatures and others.

All have been found within the last 10 years. To date, only bacteriological studies have been carried out on their remains.

The museum is home to the remains of more than 20 different animals taken from the permafrost, all of which are kept at a temperature of -16C, -18C.

Sergei Fedorov, in charge of exhibitions at the museum, said technology does not stand still.

“With the help of new research methods, we hope that paleoviruses will be found at our facilities and interesting discoveries in the world of viruses await us.”

The Vector laboratory, which specializes in virology and biotechnology, is based in Siberia’s Novosibirsk region.

It has research facilities capable of meeting all levels of biological hazards. It is one of two official repositories for the now-eradicated smallpox virus.

The lab has made many major contributions to vaccine projects, antiviral drug developments, and diagnostic tests.

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