Melting ice from glacier atop Tibetan plateau could release ancient unknown viruses


  • A glacier on the northwestern Tibetan Plateau of China was found to be housing several never-before-seen viruses for the past 15,000 years.
  • As human-aggravated climate change continues to melt glaciers at a more rapid pace worldwide, it would be important for scientists to investigate these mysterious viruses.
  • A researcher warned that the melting ice from the glacier could create a “worst-case scenario” in which the pathogens are released into the environment.

Scientists have discovered that a glacier on the northwestern Tibetan Plateau of China has been housing several unknown viruses for the past 15,000 years.

Twenty-eight (28) never-before-seen virus groups were discovered in two ice cores from this Tibetan glacier.

The study authors wrote that scientists would benefit from an investigation of these mysterious viruses, particularly on two fronts.

Firstly, research findings could reveal which viruses thrived in different climates and environments over time.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it’s best to have as much information about these viruses as possible in the event of “a worst-case scenario”: the “ice melt [from climate change] could release pathogens into the environment.”

Studying these ancient glacial microbes can be challenging, however. The ice core samples can be easily contaminated with modern-day bacteria. So, the researchers devised a new protocol to achieve “ultraclean” microbial and viral sampling.

Two ice core samples have previously been collected from the Guliya ice cap on the Tibetan Plateau in 1992 and 2015. But since no special measure was taken to avoid microbial contamination, the exterior of these ice cores was contaminated.

Fortunately, the ice cores’ interior was still pristine.

The researchers got to work in a cold room (at 23 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 5 degrees Celsius). They then cut away 0.2 inches (0.5 centimeters) of ice from the outer layer with the use of a sterilized band saw. Next, they melted away another 0.2 inches of ice by washing the ice cores with ethanol. Finally, another 0.2 inches were washed away with sterile water.

After shaving off about 0.6 inches (1.5 cm) of ice, the researchers were able to reach an uncontaminated layer. They were able to replicate this process for when the outer layer of the ice was covered with other bacteria and viruses.

Their research revealed 33 groups of virus genuses (or genera) in the ice cores — 28 of which were previously unknown to science.

The researchers wrote that the significant differences among the microbes “presumably [represented] the very different climate conditions at the time of deposition.”

As human-aggravated climate change continues to melt glaciers at a more rapid pace worldwide, scientists should take care not to let these viral archives be lost.

The researchers noted that research into these ancient viruses “provides a first window into viral genomes and their ecology” and “their likely impact” on modern viruses.

The study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, was posted on the bioRxiv database on Jan. 7.


Source: NBC News

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