Can a virus be revived?

14 March 2014

PithovirusIn Carl Zimmer’s New York Times article describing the recovery of the giant virus Pithovirus sibericum from the Siberian permafrost, he used the words revive and resurrect. Can a virus be restored to life?

The headline of the article read ‘Out of Siberian ice, a virus revived‘. Within the body of the article, Zimmer wrote ‘From Siberian permafrost more than 30,000 years old, they have revived a virus that’s new to science’, and later considered the ‘risk of an outbreak of resurrected viruses’. Both words mean ‘restore to life’.

When most people say ‘virus’ they usually mean the very small virus particle that infects cells. Virus particles are not living: they are assemblies of protein, nucleic acid, and sometimes lipids that do nothing until they infect a cell. That is why they are called obligate intracellular parasites. In the case of Pithovirus, infectious virus particles were present in the frozen sample that were able to infect amoeba in the laboratory.

To say that a virus was revived or resurrected is wrong, although I understand that the idea of bringing anything back to life has a great deal of general appeal. The key fact in this story is that the infectivity of the virus particle was maintained for over 30,000 years in the Siberian permafrost. I realize that this does not make for compelling headlines, but mine would have been: ‘Infectious virus recovered from Siberian ice after 30,000 years’. I suspect that Zimmer might understand this, but as he’s told me before, sometimes it’s much easier (and requires fewer words) to write something for the non-scientist that is not quite right.

Even virologists confuse the living with the non-living. When Paul Bieniasz and his laboratory reported that they had reconstituted an infectious retrovirus from viral sequences in the human genome, they used the phrase ‘the resurrection of this extinct infectious agent’.

A virus particle is not alive, but a virus infected cell certainly is living. A virus can be viewed as an organism with two phases, a non-living virus particle, or virion; and an infected cell, which is alive.  This definition solves the problem of whether a virus is alive or not, a subject of much debate here and elsewhere. Even if we use this terminology, the use of resurrect and revive to describe viral infectivity is still wrong, because virus particles cannot be brought back to life – they are not alive to begin with.

  • David Lawrance

    Mitochondria? Chlamydia? Isn’t this about English semantics and not biology, the alive vs not alive thing? We’re not talking crystals. Words invented to serve us on a macroscopic scale always have a different slant in the microscopic or smaller, global or larger realms (e.g is the Earth alive?) It also happens when languages and cultures cross.

    To propagate something that has been frozen still in the Siberian ice for 30,000 years… Does that not deserve a little bit of poetic license? Or is it simply, “Eh, what did you expect to happen?”

  • Rebecca P

    Virus has the ability to adapt and replicate. Of course it is considered life!

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  • carlzimmer

    Dear Vincent: Thanks for your comments on my story. I agree that the question of how to use ordinary language to describe viruses is complicated. But you’ve erected a bit of a straw man here. You focus entirely on my article, suggesting that the problem you’re identifying is solely a matter of how journalists distort the rigorous language of science. But if you look at the abstract of the paper, the authors themselves write “The ***revival*** of such an ancestral amoeba-infecting virus used as a safe indicator of the possible presence of pathogenic DNA viruses.” [Asterisks mine.] As a journalist, I take that as a sign that I can use the same word and be on safe ground. Link: http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2014/02/26/1320670111.abstract

  • taingalls

    We might also consider how we define ‘living’ in terms of evolvable populations. In this case, we have both an interesting story about a virus that has maintained infectivity over 30,000 years and a story about the restoration of a viral population that was effectively extinct.

  • Adam Obr

    Why deal with the question anyway? We know how viruses work, and to call or not call them “living” is only a matter of word used for description.
    And, just for the sake of having fun – an “organism” with two phases, non-living (dead? undead?) and living, that is for me personally much more silly than “living” virus. Now, I feel that we can argue about the words, or just do the biology (which is more exciting, anyway).
    I absolutely can accept a “living” virus in matter of an article for public, because the public will understand from that word that the virus is “working”. Which, I believe, is the main deal here. Isn’t it?

  • B Chin

    I must agree with a former TWIV letter writer on this one. Country music is not living (actually I wish it were dead), but you can go to a country music revival and hear some live music. Similarly, live ammunition is routinely used today, although living ammunition hasn’t been used since the days of catapults.

  • B Chin

    Be glad you’re in biology, worrying about the meaning of “live” is small play. In physics then you occasionally have to listen the the endless, pointless, applicationless, and usually completely meaningless rantings of philosophers about the foundations of quantum mechanics. They go on and on to any captive audience they can find, but they never can get out of their hair splittings long enough to get to the numerous profound and interesting questions of actual substance. Nobody reads them, and indeed if you look at their papers (posted daily on the arXiv) then you’ll see that they mostly don’t even read each other, since they don’t tend to cite anything less than 50 years old.

  • Matt Dubuque

    Vincent, I have a question about the following language excerpted from the Bieniasz NIH paper you linked to.

    ” Interestingly, reconstituted HERV-K replication experiments, and comparison of the reconstituted HERV-K DNA sequence with the dead HERV-Ks in modern human DNA, suggests that HERV-K may have been extinguished in humans in part by host defenses that induce mutation of retroviral DNA and that the reconstitution of the pseudo-ancestral HERV-K reversed these changes.”

    Does this mean that the new retrovirus they created (or re-created) may well be an infectious agent (i.e. that possibility exists…)?

  • Jim S.

    If virus is not alive, we cannot say “to kill virus” either, right? What would the best words to represent the idea of destroying virus completely.

  • Vera Kolb

    I believe that viruses are alive and argue this point in my paper http://homepages.uwp.edu/kolb/documents/IJA2010Kolbrepo_A74LVzPn.pdf