Scientists Discover 28 Novel Viruses in 15,000-Year-Old Glacier Ice

Ancient viruses can teach us about everything from evolution and climate change.
Sarah Marquart
Glaciers on the border of China.Sergey Pashko/Wikimedia

As ice across the world melts due to rising temperatures, it revealss everything from ancient nematodes to cave lions. However, most of these preserved discoveries have been found in the arctic permafrost. Now, scientists have announced a new discovery in glacier ice: multiple ancient viruses.

Extreme conditions

The viruses were found in 15,000-year-old ice samples taken from China's Tibetan Plateau – specifically the Guliya ice cap which rises 22,000 feet above sea level. In total, the researchers found genetic codes for 33 viruses. Out of those, 28 have never been seen before.

In addition to being so unique, they're also incredibly resilient. 

“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,” said Matthew Sullivan, co-author of the study, professor of microbiology at Ohio State, and director of Ohio State’s Center of Microbiome Science.

Understanding Viruses 

The study of viruses in glaciers is relatively new, but they have previously been found in permafrost. In 2014, for example, scientists revived two "giant viruses" that had been trapped in the Siberian permafrost for 30,000 years. 

Continuing to seek out and investigate these discoveries will be vital as climate change continues to affect even the most extreme of Earth's environments. 

“We know very little about viruses and microbes in these extreme environments, and what is actually there,” said Lonnie Thompson, senior author of the study, distinguished university professor of earth sciences at Ohio State, and senior research scientist at the Byrd Center. “The documentation and understanding of that is extremely important: How do bacteria and viruses respond to climate change? What happens when we go from an ice age to a warm period like we’re in now?”

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In addition, the authors of the study, lead by Zhi-Ping Zhong at the Ohio State University Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center, hope to use information about the viruses to better understand their evolution. 

"The method that Zhi-Ping developed to decontaminate the cores and to study microbes and viruses in ice could help us search for these genetic sequences in other extreme icy environments – Mars, for example, the moon, or closer to home in Earth’s Atacama Desert," said Sullivan in a press release. 

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