China has drawn increased speculation over its role in the release of a novel coronavirus that resulted in a deadly global pandemic.
Now, scientists in that country have reportedly discovered at least 33 ancient viruses frozen within glaciers — and at least 28 of them have never been seen or studied before.
“Along with dust and gases”
It is worth noting that experts believe the viruses, which could be up to 15,000 years old, would have likely infected plants or soil and posed no risk to animals or humans.
Given that so little is known about them, such reassurances about the frozen discoveries might provide cold comfort, so to speak.
The revelation was first detailed in a peer-reviewed study by Ohio State University researchers and published in the scientific journal Microbiome.
Only four of the 33 viruses were already classified at the time of the discovery and all of them were found in a pair of ice core samples extracted in 2015 near the 22,000-foot summit of the Guliya glacial ice cap in Western China’s Tibetan Plateau.
In a statement, the lead author of the study explained: “These glaciers were formed gradually, and along with dust and gases, many, many viruses were also deposited in that ice.”
“Surreal genetic signatures”
According to Zhi-Ping Zhong’s statement, the Chinese glaciers “are not well-studied” and researchers on his team hope “to use this information to reflect past environments.”
As USA Today reported, about half of the viruses contained intact genetic codes despite, or because of, the lengthy period of time in ice. That realization has prompted optimism that other microbes or viruses could eventually be found and studied in extreme environments on this planet and potentially even on Mars.
“These are viruses that would have thrived in extreme environments,” said Matthew Sullivan, a co-author of the study. “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.”
Ohio State University senior research scientist Lonnie Thompson, a senior author of the study, suggested that the discovery could also provide great benefit to scientists studying climate change.
“We know very little about viruses and microbes in these extreme environments, and what is actually there,” he said. “The documentation and understanding of that is extremely important: How do bacteria and viruses respond to climate change? What happens when we go from an ice age to a warm period like we’re in now?”