15,000‑year-old viruses discovered in melting Tibetan Glaciers: Know why is this alarming!

Most of these viruses are unlike any viruses that have been cataloged to date, as they have been remained frozen for thousands of years. The study findings were published in a science journal- Microbiome.

Created On: Jul 22, 2021 18:08 IST
15,000‑year-old viruses discovered in melting Tibetan Glaciers
15,000‑year-old viruses discovered in melting Tibetan Glaciers

A group of scientists have discovered ancient viruses that have been frozen for almost 15,000 years in Tibetan glaciers. The scientists found the viruses in two ice samples taken from the Tibetan Plateau in China. 

Most of these viruses are unlike any viruses that have been cataloged to date, as they have been remained frozen for thousands of years. The study findings were published in a science journal- Microbiome.

Scientists have reportedly developed a new method of analysing the viruses in ice without contaminating it. The study of the viruses could help scientists understand how viruses have evolved over the centuries. 

The Discovery: Key Highlights

• The researchers had analysed two ice samples taken from the Guliya ice cap in the Tibetan plateau in 2015. The ice cap had trapped various particles at the time of their formation.

• The ice caps were collected from high altitudes where 22,000 feet above sea level.

• During the study, the researchers discovered genetic codes for 33 viruses in the ice caps, four of which have already been identified by the scientific community. However, almost 28 of the viruses are novel viruses.

• More than half of them have survived at the time they were frozen not in spite of the ice, but because of it. According to a researcher, the  viruses have signatures of genes that help them infect cells in cold environments.

• The four viruses that had been previously identified were from virus families that typically infect bacteria. 

• The preliminary analysis shows that the viruses originated within soil or plants and not from within animals or humans. 

According to Zhi-Ping Zhong, lead author of the study, the Tibetan glaciers were formed gradually and many viruses were also deposited in that ice along with dust and gases. 

He further said that their goal is to use this information to reflect past environments, of which viruses are a part. The glaciers in western China have not been studied thoroughly. Zhi-Ping Zhong is a researcher at The Ohio State University Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center, who focuses on microbiology. 

Significance

• The discovery of the ancient viruses provides a glimpse into the ancient life forms and how glacial melting due to climate change can potentially impact humankind. 

• The researchers hope to get interesting insights into past environmental changes through the present discovery. They also hope to learn about the evolution of microbes. 

• They hope to seek answers to questions like- 

-How do bacteria and viruses respond to climate change?

-What happens when we go from an ice age to a warm period like now?

Lonnie Thompson, the study's co-author said that “we know very little about viruses and microbes in these extreme environments, and what is actually there.” She is also a professor of earth sciences at the Ohio State University in the US. 

Why is this alarming?

• The discovery of ancient viruses from melting caps is alarming, especially when the world is currently grappling with the deadly COVID-19 pandemic. Besides being potentially damaging for the planet as a whole, melting ice caps now also mean loss of ancient, archived microbes and viruses, which can possibly be released into the environment in the future. 

• Several experts have pointed out the threat of viruses emerging out of melted glaciers. An article published earlier had thrown light on the fact that climate change is melting permafrost soils that have been frozen for thousands of years, which could potentially release ancient viruses and bacteria that have been lying dormant so far. 

• Example: In 2016, a 12-year-old boy died in Siberia and at least twenty people were hospitalized after being infected by anthrax. As per scientists, a reindeer infected with anthrax may have died more than 75 years ago and its carcass may have been trapped under the frozen soil. Due to severe heatwaves, the ice could have thawed causing the dormant virus to spring back to life. 

24,000-year-old animal comes back to life 

Russian scientists informed on June 7, 2021 that a 24,000-year-old microscopic animal reportedly came back to life after being frozen in Siberian permafrost. The micro-animal called bdelloid rotifer not only came to life but also made clones of itself.

Permafrost has been melting rapidly due to global warming and several remains have been discovered in the last couple of years such as that of an extinct cave lion cub in 2017, an 18,000-year-old prehistoric puppy in 2018, a 42,000-year-old foal, 32,000-year-old wolf head in 2019 and well-preserved bones of a 10,000-year-old woolly mammoth just last year.

While scientists are intrigued by the research potential these discoveries offer, they are also alarmed by the rapid melting of the glaciers that are leading to these discoveries. 

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