Researchers at the Chinese Academy of Scientists say they have uncovered more than 900 new microbes living inside glaciers in Tibet. Samples taken from 21 glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau revealed never-before seen bacteria, algae, archaea, and fungi according to a study published in Nature. The scientists said the ice-entrapped modern and ancient pathogenic microbes could lead to pandemics if unleashed because of global warming.
According to the Daily Caller, of the 968 microbes found in the region, 98% were completely unknown to science prior to their recent discovery.
“Despite extreme environmental conditions, such as low temperatures, high levels of solar radiation, periodic freeze-thaw cycles and nutrient limitation, the surfaces of glaciers support a diverse array of life,” the study authors wrote. The Tibetan Plateau is a high-altitude region, positioned between the Himalayan mountains and the Taklamakan Desert in Asia.
The team sequenced the DNA of the organisms they discovered to create the Tibetan Glacier Genome and Gene (TG2G) catalog. Some previous studies estimate the microbes can survive being frozen for up to 10,000 years.
The researchers found more than 27,000 potential virulence factors within the TG2G catalog. These are molecules that allow bacteria to infect and colonize a host, says Daily Caller. These pathogens can be unleashed if the glacier melts, potentially infecting humans, or the flora and fauna humans depend upon for survival.
“Ice-trapped pathogen microbes could lead to local epidemics or even pandemics,” write the authors.
According to Ohio State News, last year scientists found viruses nearly 15,000 years old in two ice samples taken from the Tibetan Plateau. When they analyzed the ice, they found genetic codes for 33 viruses. Four of these viruses were already known by the scientific community but at least 28 of them were novel.
“These are viruses that would have thrived in extreme environments,” said Matthew Sullivan, co-author of that study and a professor of microbiology at The Ohio State University. The study of viruses in glaciers is a relatively new field, said Lonnie Thompson, senior author of the study and a distinguished university professor of earth sciences at Ohio State. Thompson said that this area of research is becoming more important as the climate changes.
“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 a climate change? What happens when we go from an ice age to a warm period like we’re in now?”
The more recent study by Chinese scientists suggests that some of the newfound bacteria could be very dangerous to humans and other organisms, says Live Science. The researchers warned that 47% of the virulence factors they identified in the pathogens have never been seen before, and so there is no way of knowing how harmful the bacteria could be if released.
Adding to that warning, the experts say that even if the bacteria do not survive for long after being released from their icy prison, they can still infect other entities by sharing their DNA with other bacteria. So even if the glacial bacteria die shortly after being thawed out, they can still pass on some of their virulence to other bacteria they encounter. This genetic interaction between glacier microbes and modern microorganisms “could be particularly dangerous,” wrote the authors.
The Tibetan Plateau glaciers could be a hot spot for unleashing future pandemics, says Live Science, because they feed fresh water into several waterways, including the Yangtze River, the Yellow River, and the Ganges River, which supply two of the most populated countries of the world. And as we witnessed with COVID-19, pandemics spread quickly through populated areas.
However, the new study has shed light on the genetics of these microbial communities locked in ice and the TG2G catalog may prove to be invaluable as a toolkit to explore ways to create new medicines and other technologies to thwart a potential pandemic in the future.
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