Thursday, March 06, 2014

Something nasty under the tundra

It is at times like this, with the world in crisis, nations rattling their sabres and the price of fuel going through the roof, that one thinks of the words of Boney M’s 1978 chartbuster Rasputin.

“Ohhh, those Russians.”

The late Bobby Farrell, lead singer with the top-selling Deutsche Disco act, must have known a thing or two about international relations. He was born in the Dutch Antilles and lived in Norway, Holland and Germany before dying, at a tragically early age, in a hotel room in St Petersburg. Russia.Now how spooky is that?
Well, not as spooky – or scary – as the news coming out of Russia right now.

And we’re not talking about the Ukraine here, or the imminent outbreak of World War Three. Or at least Crimean War Two.

No, this week’s really bad news from the land of the borscht and the balalaika got rather buried under all the macho Putinic posturing.

It came from far north and east of Sevastopol, and it concerned not mad monks but mad scientists.

French mad scientists, to boot.

They were poking around in the Siberian tundra and found what they describe as a “giant virus” – Pithovirus sibericum to its friends. 

It has been lying dormant for some 30,000 years, but with the defrosting of the not-so-permafrost it has warmed up, come back to life and started chomping on its prey: single-celled amoebae.

Killer: Pithovirus sibericum, yesterday 
(Pavel Hrdlička, Wikipedia)
Pithovirus, like Rasputin, is obviously very hard to kill.

Professor Jean-Michel Claverie and his colleague Dr Chantal Abergel, from the University of Aix-Marseille, are quick to reassure us that humanity has nothing to fear from the unpleasant little critter. 

“It comes into the cell, multiplies and finally kills the cell,” said Dr Abergel with more than a trace of Gallic glee. “It is able to kill the amoeba, but it won’t infect a human cell.”

Leaving aside the question of how she can be sure, what’s most worrying here is the thought that there might be something really nasty lurking under the semi-frozen plains of Siberia.

Picture the scene, if you will.The French boffins probe deeper into the squelchy half-frozen peat. Mais quel horreur! They reel back as a grey-green mass of sentient lichen pokes out a prehensile pseudopod, hauls itself up to the surface and fixes them with the three beadiest of its seven beady eyes.

“Hello,” it says. “My name is Dmitri. Please to take me where there is vodka.”

All of which goes to prove that just because you can do something (like re-animate a virus, or a lichen, or an Irish elk, or even Neanderthal Man) it doesn’t necessarily mean that you should.

From Icarus to Doctor Frankenstein, legend and literature are full of examples of those who flew in the face of nature, and fell. The Greeks had a word for it: hubris.

And when Vladimir Putin comes marching over the Russo-Ukrainian border, mounted on a prancing woolly mammoth and followed by troops of wild-eyed Orthodox monks, you can’t say that we haven’t been warned.

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