15,000-Year Old Viruses Surface as Melting Tibetan Glaciers Release Them
By: April Carson
Do we have reason to be concerned about similar ancient viruses?
Researchers sequenced the genomes of more than 30 ancient viruses from old ice gathered on the Tibetan plateau, many of which were previously unknown to science. The viruses discovered in the Guliya ice cap are approximately 15,000 years old. The oldest viruses sequenced to date by these researchers were around 700 years old.
"We now know that viruses much older than 700 years, and as old as half a million years, can be preserved in glaciers," says Jean-Michel Claverie, Director of the Structural & Genomic Information Lab (IGS) at Aix-Marseille Université.
"This suggests they could be found in other places in Antarctica, or even in much older ice layers, up to one million years old. The challenge now is to correctly retrieve these viruses' genomes from the wealth of environmental sequencing data generated today."
What makes ancient viruses so significant and potentially harmful?
The study of ancient ice began to take hold in the early part of the last century, but it was largely neglected until the 1980s. Scientists have since been able to cultivate proteobacteria, actinobacteria, firmicutes, and bacteroids - the types that dominate in cores - from ice more than 750 thousand years old.
The results indicate that the geothermal energy had some kind of influence on these microorganisms. Some research have shown that these bacteria maintained their metabolism as they continued to produce more gases, particularly CO2, CH4, and N2O.
Only a few of these studies focused on bacterial communities, but viruses have been discovered in glaciers only a few times. First, they discovered the RNA of a tobamovirus linked with the tomato mosaic virus in ice cores from Greenland, which is 140 thousand years old. Then virus-like particles were found in the ice near the eastern border.
The researchers of the new study - scientists from several research institutions all around the world - used a novel "ultra-pure" technique to analyze microbial and viral communities trapped in two ice cores extracted from the Tibetan plateau's summit (6710 meters above sea level) and plateau (6200 meters above sea Level).
This region's glaciers were formed gradually, and viruses were "deposited" in their bowels as a result of dust and gases. As a consequence, everything that was in the atmosphere during the ice layers' freezing was trapped within "ice traps."
A timeline formed by the layers became a sort of educational pathway through which you may learn more about climate change, microbes, viruses, and gases throughout history.
The researchers analyzed the ice and discovered viral sequences from 33 viruses, four of which are known to science and 28 of which were believed to be unique. Meanwhile, the concentrations were far lower than in oceans or soil.
The taxonomy of new infectious agents was established by comparing common gene sets with the genomes of 2304 recognized viruses, since viruses lack a single unifying gene. The viruses discovered most likely originated from soil or flora rather than animals or people.
Do ancient viruses terrify us? On many occasions, environmentalists have warned about the possible hazards lurking in the ice. There's no telling what sort of virus may be released when the ice melts, making this situation particularly worrisome during a pandemic.
The fact is that we are unable to prevent an unexpected outbreak, but it is also doubtful it will ever happen. Scientists, on the other hand, continue to unearth brand-new ancient viruses that shed light on the planet's past environmental changes as well as the virus's evolution.
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