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Dozens of new viruses found in 15,000-year-old glacier ice

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Posted at 8:17 AM, Jul 28, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-28 11:17:40-04

Dozens of viruses have been found inside a sample of glacier ice from Tibet believed to be about 15,000 years old.

The ice core samples were taken in 2015 from the Tibetan Plateau in western China about 22,000 feet above sea level and were studied by a team of researchers led by Zhi-Ping Zhong with The Ohio State University. Their research was recently published in the journal Microbiome.

“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,” Zhong said.

The team found genetic code for 33 viruses inside the ice samples. Only about four of the viruses have already been identified, the other two dozen are completely new to the scientific community.

About half of the viruses found in the ice seemed to have survived all this time because of the frozen ice environment they were trapped in. They are viruses that would have “thrived in extreme environments,” researchers said.

“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.

For their study, researchers were able to create a new, ultra-clean method of analyzing microbes and viruses in the ice without contaminating it, according to the university.

They believe the viruses likely originated with soil or plants, not with animals or humans.

They believe as the glacier formed, as dust and gases in the air were incorporated into the water and ice, it also deposited viruses.

The research could help in future exploration of icy climates, including on Mars, the moon, or in other extremely cold areas of Earth.