RESEARCHERS have found ancient viruses and bacteria trapped under ice in a glacier in China – and they’re still alive and kicking.
A handful of the viruses, which are thought to be up to 15,000 years old, were previously unknown to science.
It’s sparked fears that glaciers melting as a result of climate change could release a plague of infectious microorganisms onto our planet.
“Melting will not only lead to the loss of those ancient, archived microbes and viruses, but also release them to the environments in the future,” researchers wrote in a study published Wednesday.
The team studied two ice core samples drilled in 2015 from the Guliya ice cap on the Tibetan Plateau, which began to freeze at least 14,400 years ago.
After sequencing the genomes of the microscopic creatures within, they identified that 28 of the 33 viruses found had never been seen before.
The group doesn’t believe the viruses originated from animals or humans but came from the soil or plants.
Roughly half of them survived because they were trapped in ice.
“These are viruses that would have thrived in extreme environments,” said study author and Ohio State University researcher Matthew Sullivan.
“These viruses have signatures of genes that help them infect cells in cold environments – just surreal genetic signatures for how a virus is able to survive in extreme conditions.”
Examining “archives” of microscopic creatures can help scientists to shed light on the ecosystems of the past.
They can also tell us a lot about the environments in which these organisms lived, and how Earth’s environment has changed in the millennia since.
“These glaciers were formed gradually, and along with dust and gases, many, many viruses were also deposited in that ice,” Zhi-Ping Zhong, lead author and researcher at the Ohio State University, said in a statement.
“The glaciers in western China are not well-studied, and our goal is to use this information to reflect past environments. And viruses are a part of those environments.”
The study was published in the journal Microbiome.
It’s not the first time that scientists have unearthed frozen microbes that are still alive after thousands of years.
Last month, researchers reported that they’d successfully revived ancient worm-like creatures discovered in Siberian permafrost.
The microscopic organisms could still reproduce after being thawed out despite becoming trapped in ice around 24,000 year ago.
Called Bdelloid rotifers, they’re known for their ability to withstand extreme environments for long periods.
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