Lake Linnevatnet, Spitsbergen, Svalbard
Photograph provided by Antonio Alcami

The Arctic lakes in Svalbard, Norway are among of the most pristine, isolated bodies of water on the planet. But that doesn’t mean they’re empty.

In a new study published today in Science Advances researchers announced the discovery of previously unknown viruses.

Viruses are found basically everywhere. They are minuscule packages of RNA or DNA surrounded by a protein shell. While some viruses can cause devastating diseases in organisms (including humans), many don’t. In this case, the Arctic viruses infect algae and protozoa living in the lake.

The researchers working on the project found that the DNA viruses were smaller than other DNA viruses, and speculate that it could be because a smaller size makes it easier to replicate in the frigid arctic waters. They also compared the new viruses to similar viruses found in freshwater and ocean environments all over the world, including the Sahara, Antarctica, aquaculture farms in North America, temperate locations in Europe, and the Arctic Ocean. They found that the viruses collected from the isolated lakes were most closely related to each other, but that there was a little bit of overlap with the Arctic Ocean as well.

Because these viruses can function so well in low temperatures, the researchers are interested to know if they could harness that ability for future technological applications. It’s not a crazy idea. Plenty of amazing inventions, like sticky drones, ice proof coatings and ocean camouflage have been based on nature. Why not add viruses to the mix?