Scientists Found Ancient, Never-Before-Seen Viruses in a Glacier

Glacial viruses are understudied, and climate change may keep it that way. From a report: 15,000 years ago, some water froze atop the Tibetan Plateau and became part of a glacier. While humans were busy domesticating dogs, the ice entrapped millions of microscopic organisms per square inch. Many of the tiny life forms died, and their genomes — the only proof that they had been there in the first place — slowly degraded. Then, in 2015, scientists from the U.S. and China drilled down 50 meters into the glacier to see what they could find. Five years later, these researchers have recovered evidence of ancient viruses in the glacier ice, including 28 viral groups that are new to science. Their study detailing the discovery was posted online as a pre-print on Tuesday. Records of ancient microbes, like those found in glacier ice, give scientists a glimpse into Earth’s evolutionary and climate history. As our planet undergoes climate change, these frozen records can inform predictions about which microorganisms will survive, and what the resulting environment will look like.

“Glacier ice harbors diverse microbes, yet the associated viruses and their impacts on ice microbiomes have been unexplored,” the authors wrote in the paper. The group declined to comment on the paper, as it has not yet been peer-reviewed — “This is an exciting new area of research for us,” co-author Lonnie Thompson said in an email. Viruses found in glacial samples known as ice cores are especially understudied because of how small they are, said Scott O. Rogers, a professor at Bowling Green State University and an author of the book Defrosting Ancient Microbes: Emerging Genomes in a Warmer World.


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