Secrets of the Giant, Ancient, Frozen, Killer Virus

Think this flu virus looks nasty? The giant virus is 20,000 times bigger
Think this flu virus looks nasty? The giant virus is 20,000 times bigger Ian Cuming—Getty Images/Ikon Images

Strange things are slumbering in the permafrost—and some of them are able to wake up

It all started with a tiny chunk of dirt. The sample of 30,000-year-old permafrost, a frozen layer of soil from the Siberian tundra, weighed just a fraction of an ounce. But, as TIME reported on Tuesday, that scrap was carrying within it a surprise worthy of a pulp comic book: a gargantuan virus, the largest known to science, and still, despite having been in suspended animation for millennia, quite deadly. Be grateful that it infects only amoebas, not humans.

That virus, weighing in at 1.5 micrometers, is as big as a small bacterium—huge by viral standards. But the significance of the find goes well beyond that gee-whiz metric. Where one übervirus was there should be more, some of which may not be quite as quiescent as we always assumed.

Permafrost has long been known to be something of an ad hoc museum of Earth’s natural history. It contains methane, for example—produced by the decay of long-ago plants and animals and then covered up by the accumulating ice. It’s a good thing that the gas is locked in place this way since methane is a major contributor to global warming; it’s a very bad thing, however, that the warming that has already occurred is causing so much glacial melt, which releases the methane and only accelerates the climate change process. Intact bodies of hapless mastodons and other long-gone creatures are occasionally released by thaws too—though those discoveries are objects only of scientific delight.

Active viruses, though, had not been reported until this week, in the new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. The senior authors of the study, Jean-Michel Claverie and Chantal Abergel of Aix-Marseille University, have a long history of virus hunting. Over the last ten years or so, collecting samples from locations as varied as a water tower, a pond, and the ocean off of Chile, they’ve been involved in the discovery of a number of giant viruses, which had been overlooked in earlier research for the very reason that they are so enormous. Standard procedure for studying viruses involves a filtering step that removes all but the tiniest particles in a sample. So the giants—some up to a thousand times the size of the ordinary viruses and containing more than 2,500 possible genes, compared to just eight in the flu virus—were not recognized until 2003. Claverie, Abergel, and their collaborators have since revealed the existence of several more, though giants viruses are only the merest fraction of total virus diversity.

Then, in 2012, Russian researchers managed a magnificent feat: they revived a flowering campion plant from fruits frozen around 30,000 years ago in Siberian permafrost. That got the French researchers thinking: What else could be revived from the permafrost? Ancient bacterial DNA has been found in permafrost, and viruses frozen there in the last couple hundred years have been revived, but no one had grown one from so long ago, and no one had recovered any giant ones.

The French team thus asked the Russian group for some samples of their permafrost and arranged a straightforward test: Since many giant viruses pose as prey for amoebas, then destroy them from within, they fed the permafrost to amoeba cultures. A preserved virus that was seeing the inside of a living cell for the first time in 30,000 years would probably be only too happy to go straight to work. Sure enough, soon the amoebas were dying. “It’s food poisoning,” in essence, says Abergel. “As soon as the virus comes in and is able to unload its genetic material inside the cell, it’s the end for the amoeba.”

To the team’s surprise, however, when they investigated further, the giant virus laying waste to the amoebas did not belong to any of the species already known to science. It had the rough shape of two giant viruses the French team discovered last year, but had a very different genome and reproductive cycle. And that genome is full of mysteries.

“About 10% of its genome resembles classical viruses,” says Abergel. “But there is more than two-thirds of its genes which are new—completely unknown.” The biodiversity of all giant viruses, she says, “is probably tremendous.” The researchers dubbed this new one Pithovirus sicbericum, after the place it was found.

Even if the new virus proves to do nothing more interesting than sleep in permafrost and kill amoebas, the whole class of giant viruses is sparking a lot of scientific interest. For one thing, researchers believe that they may steal some of their genes from their hosts, more than smaller viruses are capable of. “These large ones,” says microbial ecologist Mya Breitbart of the University of Southern Florida, “offer pretty interesting insight into what’s important for a virus.” Those stolen host genes, in other words, must be helping the super viruses in some way, but how is not exactly clear.

The researchers point out that as permafrost melts, thanks to global warming, it’s possible that many more viruses long held in suspension could be released, and not all of them might confine themselves to attacking amoebas. But humans have been rooting around in the permafrost for some time without ill effects. Eugene Koonin, a senior researcher at the National Center for Biotechnology Information at the National Institutes of Health, who studies the evolution of viruses, says he’s not worried. “Even if—thinking very, very hypothetically—permafrost starts to melt, even in a case like that I do not think that this would be a serious concern,” he says. “There will be other concerns that will be much, much more immediate.” Like that methane that’s been keeping the viruses company in their long sleep, just for starters.

TIME climate change

Malaria Climbs Mountains as the Climate Warms

Malaria mosquito
Climate change will expand the range of mosquitoes that transmit malaria UIG/Getty Images

New research says that climate change will cause mosquitos to move into previously bug-free high-altitude territory, bringing the debilitating and often deadly disease with them as they climbs up warming hilly terrain

Malaria is one of the most common—and deadly—infectious diseases in the world, sickening more than 300 million people a year and killing over 600,000 people. But because it’s a mosquito-borne disease—the parasite that causes malaria is passed to human beings by mosquito bites—its range has been limited to warmer tropical areas, the so-called “malaria belt.” And even within tropical countries, altitude matters: the disease is much less common in tropical highlands, where colder temperatures slow down both the mosquito and the development of the parasite within it. It’s not for nothing that 19th century British colonists would build hill stations in malaria-prone countries like India, to escape both heat and disease.

So it’s not surprising either that scientists have been trying to find out for years whether climate change might expand the range of malaria, putting millions of people who live in tropical highlands at risk. Warmer temperatures should mean more malaria, but in recent years the number of cases has actually fallen dramatically, largely because of renewed efforts to fight the disease. But now a new study in Science makes a strong case that as the climate warms, malaria will indeed be on the march, expanding its range to previously safe high-altitude territory, putting even more pressure on prevention campaigns—and if those fail, leading to more deaths.

Researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the University of Michigan sifted through regional records in Ethiopia and Colombia, two tropical countries with highland territory, looking at malaria cases from 1990 to 2005 in Colombia and 1993 to 2005 in Ethiopia. They corrected for other factors that might influence malaria cases—mosquito control programs, for example, which lead to fewer of the insects; and rainfall, which leads to more—and found that the median altitude of malaria cases moved higher in warm years, and lower during cooler yields. All else being equal, as the planet warms, it seems likely that malaria will become more dangerous to more people.

“This is indisputable evidence of a climate effect,” said Mercedes Pascual, a disease ecologist at Michigan and one of authors of the Science paper. “Our findings here underscore the size of the problem and emphasize the need for sustained intervention efforts in these regions, especially in Africa.”

One thing that will make the problem worse is that people who live in tropical highlands tend to be much more vulnerable to malaria parasites to begin with because they’ve never been infected before. In an earlier paper, the Science researchers estimated that a 1° C (1.8° F) temperature increase could lead to an additional 3 million malaria cases in Ethiopian children, assuming control methods weren’t strengthened. And that’s the key point. While global warming will put more people around the world at risk for malaria and other tropical diseases, climate is far from the only factor at work. Developed cities like Singapore are well within the malaria belt, but the disease has been virtually eradicated there thanks to stringent control methods. Malaria was rampant in U.S. states like Georgia as late as the 1920s, but it’s long gone now, eliminated by control efforts that led to the creation of the Centers for Disease Control. And even in Africa, malaria incidences have fallen by 31% since 2000— as the climate has warmed—and globally 3.3 million malaria deaths have been avoided thanks to the work of institutions like the Gates Foundation. Malaria, like many infectious diseases, is first and foremost a problem of development and poverty—and when those are addressed, infections fall.

But by expanding the range of malaria, climate change will make a tough challenge all the more difficult. It’s just one more way carbon can kill.

TIME space

Hubble GIF Shows Never-Before-Seen Asteroid Breaking Up In Space

New images reveal an asteroid crumbling to approximately 10 smaller pieces, a space scene never before captured in such dramatic detail.

NASA/ESA/D. Jewitt/UCLA; Gif by Mia Tramz/TIME


NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope is more than two decades old, but it still rarely ceases to amaze. A new series of images released Thursday reveals an asteroid crumbling into approximately 10 smaller pieces, a space scene never before captured in such dramatic detail. The asteroid isn’t likely breaking up because of an impact, NASA says, but rather because of a “subtle effect of sunlight” on the rock’s rotation.

“This is a rock. Seeing it fall apart before our eyes is pretty amazing,” said David Jewitt, head of the investigation into the breakup of asteroid P/2013 R3, in a NASA statement.

Amazing indeed: Watch TIME’s GIF, above, which shows the asteroid’s month-long disintegration compressed into just a few seconds.

TIME Research

The Annals of Duh: When ‘Obvious’ Science Isn’t

Scientists could be understood better if only they'd explain themselves

So here’s something that won’t come as a surprise if you have season tickets for the Seattle Seahawks (the best football team in the known universe) or the Jacksonville Jaguars (the worst football team in the known universe): Good teams draw big crowds and bad teams draw small ones. That less-than forehead-smacking insight is what makes a new study in the business journal Applied Economics something shy of breaking news. According to the authors—economists from Nottingham University Business School and the University of Sheffield in Britain—the same rule holds for international cricket matches. And the headline of the press release announcing the study made no effort to conceal its sublimely obvious conclusion: “Strong teams attract crowds for international cricket,” it read.

But science is often a far more nuanced thing than it seems—provided it’s properly explained. There is a rich and regrettable tradition among journals to promote studies that fall into the category science journalists alternately refer to as “blinding flashes of the obvious” or “The Annals of Duh.” Take “Causes of Death in Very Old People,” for instance. Um…I’m going to guess old age.

Then there is this: “Blood Pressure Drugs Don’t Protect Against Colorectal Cancer”—though they may protect against, you know, high blood pressure. Or these: “Moderate Doses of Alcohol Increase Social Bonding in Groups” and “Dogs Learn to Associate Words With Objects Differently Than Humans Do.” If you already kind of guessed that people loosen up and feel friendlier when they’ve downed a shot or two, or that your dog can’t talk, you’d have been forgiven for giving these studies a pass.

But under the no-news veneer of all of the studies, there was true news to be found. Blood pressure drugs reduce the output of norepinephrine and some animal studies have shown that that neurotransmitter encourages the growth of colorectal cancer cells, but that finding wasn’t holding up in people. While human babies tend to group objects by shape—so once they know a ball is round they will assume all round things are balls until they have reason to believe otherwise—dogs seem to use texture or size as their way of defining categories. Being dogs, they may never move beyond that point. And as for the cricket findings: previous economic studies had always concluded that it was the closeness of the contest—in which two evenly matched though not necessarily terrific teams were playing—rather than the excellence of the home team that determined crowd size. Nifty findings all—and none of which you’d know anything about if you didn’t read past the headline of the study.

In a counterfactual age in which science is too often denied or ignored or carelessly shrugged off, it pays for the scientists themselves to consider all this. They no longer have the luxury of simply writing for other scientists—assuming, generally rightly, that that audience is sensitive to the nuance. They must, instead, write for all of us—the people who can best benefit from the science, if only we can understand it.


Need Clean Drinking Water? Just Add Wood

A forest and lake
Getty Images

Scientists discover a sophisticated filtration system underneath the bark of a pine tree

One way to clean harmful bacteria from river water is to pump it through costly man-made filters. But scientists may have discovered much more affordable technology, fully developed and ready for use, beneath the bark of an ordinary tree.

NPR reports that MIT scientist Rohit Karnik strained water through the sapwood of a pine branch. The branch’s vascular system contains membranes designed to filter out microscopic air bubbles. Karnik found that those same membranes could filter out harmful bacteria as well, apparently as much as 99.9%.

The remaining iota could still pose a serious public health risk, skeptics caution. For the moment, though, it’s an intriguing proof of concept and also evidence that sometimes invention is just catching a ride on nature’s coattails.



Study: Great Barrier Reef Doomed by 2030 Without Immediate Action

This is a satellite image of the Great Barrier Reef, Australia colllected on April 22, 2013.
This is a satellite image of the Great Barrier Reef, Australia colllected on April 22, 2013. DigitalGlobe—Getty Images

The culprit? You guessed it: Carbon emissions

Researchers warn that climate change will cause irreversible damage to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef by 2030 unless immediate action is taken.

“This is not a hunch or alarmist rhetoric by green activists,” said University of Queensland reef researcher Ove Hoegh-Guldberg in the report, presented Thursday ahead of this month’s Earth Hour global climate change campaign. “It is the conclusion of the world’s most qualified coral reef experts.”

According to Hoegh-Guldberg, scientific consensus is that a two-degree increase in average global temperature relative to pre-industrial levels would spell the end for coral reefs. “But if the current trajectory of carbon pollution levels continues unchecked,” he says, “the world is on track for at least three degrees of warming.”

One of the most biodiverse places on the planet, the Great Barrier Reef is already at risk of having its status downgraded by UNESCO to “world heritage in danger.” The more than 2,000-km-long underwater expanse will be the focus of Australia’s Earth Day, April 29.


TIME trafficking

It’s Official: Wildlife Traffickers Will Incur the Wrath of Allah

A female orangutan gets into a cage after being rescued in Pasuruan, East Java, on July 10, 2012.
A female orangutan gets into a cage after being rescued in Pasuruan, East Java, on July 10, 2012. Sigit Pamungkas—Reuters

Indonesia's top religious body says Muslims must "actively participate in the efforts to protect endangered species"

Noah had his ark. St. Francis bestowed blessings. And now religious leaders in Indonesia have unleashed their spiritual arsenal to protect our furry and four-legged friends — with a fatwa.

The Indonesian Council of Ulama, the top theological body in world’s largest Muslim nation, has decreed that illegal wildlife trafficking is haram, or forbidden by God. According to the terms of the 15-page document, Indonesia’s 200 million Muslims must “actively participate in the efforts to protect endangered species, including conflict resolution between humans and wildlife in the region.”

“This fatwa is issued to give an explanation, as well as guidance, to all Muslims in Indonesia on the sharia law perspective on issues related to animal conservation,” said Hayu Prabowo, chair of the Council of Ulama’s environment and natural resources body.

To non-Muslims, the term fatwa is commonly associated with calls to slay blasphemers, after Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 infamously demanded the execution of British Satanic Verses author Salman Rushdie. In truth, though, a fatwa is simply an interpretation of Islamic law by a qualified authority.

The vast majority are benign, and cover such everyday quandaries as how to obverse the daily five calls to prayer if stuck on a long-haul flight. Earlier this year, the United Arab Emirates’ top religious body issued a fatwa forbidding Muslims from participating in a space mission to Mars.

This latest fatwa is a telling indictment of wanton ecological degradation in the world’s fourth most populous nation. Vast swaths of Indonesia have been clearered for timber as well as rubber and palm oil plantations, decimating the habitats of critically endangered species such as the Sumatran tiger, pigmy elephants, orangutans, Java rhinos, amongst many others.

In addition, there is a booming illicit trade in protected animals. According to the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Indonesian archipelago boasts the highest number of internationally threatened mammals and birds, largely due to uncontrolled hunting. Tons of turtles and pangolins (a scaly anteater) are exported on a weekly basis, and around 1.5 million wild-caught birds are sold in a single Java market each year.

The Council of Ulama got involved following a Sept. 2013 field trip to Sumatra organized by Jakarta’s Universitas Nasional, WWF-Indonesia, and the U.K.-based Alliance of Religions and Conservation. Appalled by what they witnessed, Muslim leaders decided divine intervention was required.

And so, although not legally binding, Indonesian wildlife traffickers must now negotiate more than just earthly justice. “People can escape government regulation,” adds Hayu. “But they cannot escape the word of god.”

TIME Solar Power

A Bright Year for Solar in the U.S.—But There Are Clouds on the Horizon

The solar industry is growing in the U.S., but a trade war could change that Don Emmert—AFP/Getty Images

Energy harvested from the Sun was the second-biggest source of new electricity generation capacity in 2013, but there are clouds on the horizon as a trade war between the U.S. and China stands to throw a monkey wrench in the works

You don’t get any brighter than the reflecting mirrors at the just-opened Ivanpah Solar Power Facility, in California‘s Mojave desert. When I visited the project back in May, I was warned not to look directly at the mirrors, lest my eyeballs end up as scorched as some of the birds that have flown through the 1,000° F-plus (538° C) heat generated by the solar towers. The picture is almost as bright for solar as a whole in the U.S. According to statistics released today by the Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade group, demand for solar increased by 41% in 2013, with 4.75 gigawatts of photovoltaic panels installed last year. (1 GW is about enough energy to power 750,000 homes.) That made solar the second-biggest source of new generation power in the U.S. after natural gas, which is still benefiting from the shale revolution. By the end of 2013, there were more than 440,000 operating solar electric systems in the U.S., with more than 12 GW of photovoltaic (PV) and nearly 1 GW of concentrated solar power.

While big utility scale plants like Ivanpah, which harnesses the heat of the sun with concentrated solar mirrors, got most of the headlines, it was small-scale residential systems that drove much of the demand last year. Residential projects increased by 60% over 2012 as the price of installing solar fell and as customers took advantage of leasing options—offered by companies like Solarcity, which I wrote about last year—that allowed them to purchase panels with little money up front. The growth was rolling throughout 2013, with residential installations increasing 33% in the last quarter of 2013, and should continue this year. That financing market is growing: Mosaic, an Oakland-based startup launched by the climate activist Billy Parish, just began offering a home solar loan that allows consumers the chance to borrow the cost of a solar system over 20 years. “2013 offered the U.S. solar market the first real glimpse of its path toward mainstream status,” said Shayle Kann, vice president of GTM Research, which follows the clean tech market.

(MORE: The Power—and Beauty—of Solar Energy)

Bright times for solar, indeed—and that’s just in the U.S. Last year China installed at least 12 gigawatts of solar capacity, at least 50% more than any other country had ever built in a single year. But that’s where things get cloudy. The U.S. solar boom has been fueled in part by cheap solar panels from China, which have helped bring down the cost of solar power—now 15% cheaper than it was in 2012. But those same cheap Chinese panels have hurt domestic manufacturers of solar PV, even as they’ve helped installers like Solarcity. Several domestic solar manufacturers—led by SolarWorld, an American arm of a German company—have complained that the Chinese government is unfairly subsidizing national solar PV manufacturers, which allows them to undercut their American competitors.

In response, the U.S. government agreed in 2012 to impose tariffs of 24 to 36% on Chinese PV panels. But that made little difference—Chinese companies just outsourced much of their production to Taiwan. This year, however, SolarWorld brought a new suit in response, pushing the U.S. to extend those tariffs to Chinese panels made in Taiwan. Last month, the U.S. International Trade Commission said it would move forward with an investigation, and is set to issue a preliminary ruling by the end of March. If those tariffs are indeed extended, you can expect solar power in the U.S. to get more expensive, slowing down growth and hitting installers—who employ far more Americans than U.S. solar manufacturers do—very hard, especially since China has already said it would impose retaliatory tariffs. More expensive panels would likely depress demand for solar in the U.S., hurting installers.

There’s some truth to the argument that China may be intentionally driving down the price of solar panels to allow its companies to dominate the industry. But if so, the strategy hasn’t been that effective—a number of Chinese manufacturers have gone bankrupt, including Suntech, which was until recently the world’s biggest panel maker by volume. The U.S. solar industry is at a tipping point, poised to grow its way out of niche status and potentially change the way Americans think—and more importantly, pay for—energy. It’d be a shame if a 21st century industry gets tripped up by 19th century trade politics.

(MORE: Solar Powered Plane Soars Across the U.S.)

TIME review

Famous Scientist Will Make You Smart. Click Here

Bestselling author and Ivy League physicist Brian Greene is launching an online university like none before it

Brian Greene is the best college professor you never had—unless you’ve studied physics at Columbia University, that is. If that does describe you, and you have sat in a Greene-taught class, you’re not likely to have forgotten the experience.

For the far, far larger number of people who are not part of that rarefied group, it will soon be possible to study with Greene anyway. On March 6, his online classroom series—ambitiously titled the World Science U (WSU)—goes live. And if the name seems like something of a reach, early samples of the course material suggest that he may indeed have the stuff to deliver what he promises.

The traditional model for the college course—instructor in the front, students in the seats, while lecture is presented and notes are taken—is a little like the famous description of democracy as a form of government: it’s the worst system imaginable, except for all of the others that have ever been tried. Independent study will never have the accountability a supervised class does. Correspondence courses never had the exchange of ideas that a classroom offers. The answer, in recent years, was supposed to be MOOCs—massive open online courses.

(MORE: Nine Ways Quantum Computing Will Change Everything)

As the name suggests, the web-based MOOC is open to anyone—though fees, if they are charged at all, may be waived for students of the university sponsoring the courses. The “massive” part is not an exaggeration; the number of people who can log onto a course is limited only by the bandwidth of the server, and with any tests that are given scored by computer, the whole world can be the lecture hall.

But MOOCs have problems, not the least being student followthrough. A recent study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania and sponsored by the Gates Foundation looked at 1 million MOOC students across dozens of courses and found enormous attrition rates, with, for example, 140,000 quizzes taken and submitted after the first lecture in one surveyed course, and only 20,000 after the last lecture. A survey of 16 different courses found online attendance rates as low as 2% by the end of the curriculum.

Those numbers, however, aren’t quite as bleak as they seem, as an analysis published in The Atlantic in January showed. A significant share of people who enroll in MOOCs have no intention of sticking with them to the end. Often they’re people who know much of the material already and are simply dipping in for a refresher; alternatively, they might be new to the topic and are sampling, say, what a geology course is like before deciding if they want to make it their field of study.

(MORE: The Physics of Curly Hair—Because You Deserve to Know)

But that wasn’t the case made for MOOCs by those who believe they can change the nature of education, and no one pretends that there’s any way to spin single-digit completion numbers as an unalloyed good thing. Enter Greene and his WSU.

Known widely for his best-selling books, including The Elegant Universe and Icarus at the Edge of Time, as well as the related PBS specials, Greene is also the founder of the World Science Festival, held each year in New York City. He propelled himself from the classroom to the bookstores to PBS gold mostly through the energy he projects as he teaches and the imagery he sprinkles through his course material. His specialty is string theory and theoretical physics, topics that can turn to lead in the wrong hands but come to life in the right ones—and Greene manages them artfully.

He has divided his free-of-charge WSU curriculum into three levels: quick, 30- to 90-second videos that explain a single narrow concept in physics (he has recorded a remarkable 500 of these); two- to three-week courses that involve no homework and—to the delight of more people than would admit it—no math; and longer, in-depth, college-level courses, stuffed with all of the equations it takes to master the material in a truly academic way. He also includes what he calls “Office Hours,” giving real students the opportunity to ask the virtual Greene any questions that come up in the course of a lecture. After 18 years of teaching, he knows what the most frequently asked of those questions are likely to be.

(MORE: Hawking: Is He All He’s Cracked Up to Be?)

The lectures, which were recorded over weeks and months in a brick-walled studio that has the appealingly casual look of the early MSNBC or the current CNN morning program, go heavy on the graphics, animation and touch-screen technology. Watching the videos (and, full disclosure, TIME has sampled only a handful of them, and none of them involved equations, thank you very much) has the odd effect of making physics seem like a guilty pleasure—something that, surely, one of the most head-crackingly difficult of the sciences has rarely been called. But if you like this stuff—and a lot of people do, or books like Greene’s and Stephen Hawking’s wouldn’t sell the way they do—there is a compulsive watchability to what Greene has done.

It’s impossible to know if the WSU is a viable model for future MOOCs to follow. Until the site actually launches and has a year or two to run, there will be no data available on how long students actually stick with the courses, and it will be harder still to determine how much they actually learn and retain. Greene reports that his Columbia students who use the WSU videos as a sort of textbook for his classroom course score higher on tests than other students do, but that’s a small sample group in a decidedly non-double blind study. What’s more, not every university—to say nothing of every department in every university—has a communicator like Greene teaching its material, anymore than they all have a Neil DeGrasse Tyson, or the Carl Sagan who came before them both.

But that’s nothing new. The gifted science communicator has always been harder to come by than the science. Greene, undeniably, is one of that rare breed. In his new venture, he makes that fact lyrically evident.

(FROM THE MAGAZINE: The Infinity Machine)


Window on Infinity: From Saturn to Mars to Deep Space to Home

An album of space images—including a poignant shot of a blacked-out North Korea—tell this month's tale of our place in the cosmos.

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