Scientists have discovered dozens of unknown ancient viruses from melting glaciers. Credit: Pixabay

Melting Tibetan Glaciers Unleash 15,000-Year Old Viruses

Should we be worried about similar ancient viruses?


Scientists analyzed old ice samples from the Tibetan plateau and found the genomic sequences of more than 30 ancient viruses in them, most of which were previously unknown to science. The viruses from the Guliya ice cap are approximately 15,000 years old.

What makes ancient viruses important and potentially dangerous?

1. Information about microbes found in glaciers first began to appear at the dawn of the last century, but it was largely ignored until the 1980s. Subsequently, scientists managed to cultivate proteobacteria, actinobacteria, firmicutes, and bacteroids – the types dominating in cores – from ancient ice more than 750 thousand years old.


2. Although there is no direct in situ evidence yet, some studies suggest that these microorganisms retained their activity as they continued to produce excess gases, including CO2, CH4, and N2O.

3. Most of these studies focused on microbial communities, but viruses in glaciers were found only a few times. First, in the ice cores of Greenland, they found the RNA of a tobamovirus associated with the tomato mosaic virus, 140 thousand years old. Then virus-like particles were detected in the ice in the East. In addition, ancient viruses were found in permafrost and frozen animal feces, as well as on the surface of Svalbard glaciers.

4. The authors of the new study – scientists from different research centers around the world, applied a new “ultra-pure” method to analyze microbial and viral communities preserved in two ice cores drilled into the summit (6710 meters above sea level) and plateau (6200 meters above sea level) of the glaciers of the Tibetan plateau in China.

Scientists process ice core drilled in the Gulia ice cap on the Tibetan plateau. Credit: Lonnie Thompson, Ohio State University
Scientists process ice core drilled in the Gulia ice cap on the Tibetan plateau. Credit: Lonnie Thompson, Ohio State University

5. Glaciers in this region were formed gradually, and together with dust and gases in their bowels “deposited” viruses. As a result, “ice traps” kept everything that was in the atmosphere during the freezing of each layer.


6. The layers, in turn, formed a kind of timeline through which you can learn more about climate change, microbes, viruses, and gases throughout history.

7. As it turned out, samples from the Tibetan plateau date back up to 15 thousand years. When the researchers analyzed the ice, among other things, it revealed the genomic sequences of 33 viruses: four of them are known to science, and 28 were considered unique. At the same time, the concentrations were much lower than in the oceans or soil.

8. Since viruses lack a single universal gene, the taxonomy of new infectious agents was determined by comparing common gene sets with the genomes of 2304 known viruses. The viruses found most likely originated from soil or plants, rather than from animals and people.

9. Should ancient viruses worry us? Environmentalists have spoken about the potential dangers that might be hiding in the ice on many occasions. There is no say as to what kind of a virus could be released with the melting and this is particularly worrying during a pandemic.

10. The truth is that it is beyond our capabilities to stop an unexpected outbreak but it is also highly doubtful that it will ever occur. Scientists, on the other hand, continue to discover more and more new ancient viruses that deliver unknown facts about the past environmental changes on the planet as well as the evolution of viruses.

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Bressan, D. (2021, July 21). Glacier Ice Reveals Previously Unknown Viruses. Forbes.
Hart, A. (2021, July 21). Ancient viruses found in Tibetan glacier. Cosmos Magazine.
Koumoundouros, T. (n.d.). Ancient 15,000-Year-Old Viruses Identified in Melting Tibetan Glaciers. ScienceAlert.
ScienceDaily. (2021, July 20). 15,000-year-old viruses discovered in Tibetan glacier ice.
Zhong, Z.-P., Tian, F., Roux, S., Gazitúa, M. C., Solonenko, N. E., Li, Y.-F., Davis, M. E., Etten, J. L. V., Mosley-Thompson, E., Rich, V. I., Sullivan, M. B., & Thompson, L. G. (2021, July 20). Glacier ice archives nearly 15,000-year-old microbes and phages. Microbiome.

Written by Vladislav Tchakarov

Hello, my name is Vladislav and I am glad to have you here on Curiosmos. As a history student, I have a strong passion for history and science, and the opportunity to research and write in this field on a daily basis is a dream come true.

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