US, Chinese scientists discover ancient viruses in Tibetan glacier

The viruses were found inside the centers of a 15,000-year-old Guliya ice top on the Tibetan Plateau. They had travelled to Tibet in 2015 in search of the oldest glacial ice on Earth.

Researchers have now discovered the viruses and warned that as climate change continues to melt more and more ice, more pathogens could also emerge.

A total of 33 virus groups were discovered in two ice core samples taken from the Guliya ice cap on the Tibetan Plateau, according to a paper posted on bioRxiv on January 7.

You can find many interesting things if you start digging in ice that has been frozen for thousands and thousands of years.

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Boring 164 feet down into the ancient glacier to acquire two ice cores from the Guliya ice cap on the Tibetan Plateau, the team scored a pair of ideal specimens. You not only have to do it in the right conditions to ensure that the ice is unaffected, but you also have to ensure that no contamination is caused.

"This study establishes ultra-clean microbial and viral sampling procedures for glacier ice, which complements prior in silico decontamination methods and expands, for the first time, the clean procedures to viruses", the scientists wrote. Carefully tapping into the virgin ice columns, researchers labored in a special cold room regulated at 23 degrees Fahrenheit, then used a sterilized band saw to shave off thin exterior layers and cleaned them with ethanol until they finally reached the uncontaminated ice below. Samples were then studied for the presence of microorganisms, and the researchers found a total of 33 types of viruses, with a whopping 28 of those being entirely new to science.

"The microbes differed significantly across the two ice cores", they wrote in the study, "presumably representing the very different climate conditions at the time of deposition".

"Melting of glaciers, at a bare minimum leads to loss of microbial and viral archives and in turn can be informative and help in the diagnosis of the planet's old climate regimes, " they scientists said in the research paper. "However, in a worst-case scenario, this ice melt could release pathogens into the environment".

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