Preservation of viral genomes in 700-y-old caribou feces from a subarctic ice patch
Viruses preserved in ancient materials provide snapshots of past viral diversity and a means to trace viral evolution through time. Here, we use a metagenomics approach to identify filterable and nuclease-resistant nucleic acids preserved in 700-y-old caribou feces frozen in a permanent ice patch. We were able to recover and characterize two viruses in replicated experiments performed in two different laboratories: a small circular DNA viral genome (ancient caribou feces associated virus, or aCFV) and a partial RNA viral genome (Ancient Northwest Territories cripavirus, or aNCV). Phylogenetic analysis identifies aCFV as distantly related to the plant-infecting geminiviruses and the fungi-infecting Sclerotinia sclerotiorum hypovirulence-associated DNA virus 1 and aNCV as within the insect-infecting Cripavirus genus. We hypothesize that these viruses originate from plant material ingested by caribou or from flying insects and that their preservation can be attributed to protection within viral capsids maintained at cold temperatures. To investigate the tropism of aCFV, we used the geminiviral reverse genetic system and introduced a multimeric clone into the laboratory model plant Nicotiana benthamiana. Evidence for infectivity came from the detection of viral DNA in newly emerged leaves and the precise excision of the viral genome from the multimeric clones in inoculated leaves. Our findings indicate that viral genomes may in some circumstances be protected from degradation for centuries.