The horror movie writes itself: Scientists, searching for unrelated information, stumble upon strange ice samples that are later shown to contain ancient viruses that have never been seen before. After some Hollywood-style error, the viruses are released, causing mass casualties and requiring a team of young, attractive doctors and scientists to save one particular city from almost elimination.
Okay, so we’re only at the first half of that scenario (for now), but scientists have found ancient viruses in ice samples taken from the Tibetan Plateau in China, USA Today reported. The findings were published in the journal Microbiome on Wednesday, which stated the discoveries were taken from “ice cores” in 2015 from the Guliya ice cap in Western China, 22,000 feet above sea level and had started freezing at least 14,400 years ago.
“These glaciers were formed gradually, and along with dust and gases, many, many viruses were also deposited in that ice,” Zhi-Ping Zhong, lead author of the study and a researcher at The Ohio State University Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center, said in a statement. “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.”
More from USA Today:
When researchers analyzed the ice, they found genetic codes for 33 viruses. Of the 33, genetic codes for four of them showed they are part of virus families that typically infect bacteria. Up to 28 were novel, meaning they had never before been identified.
The group said it doesn’t believe the viruses originated from animals or humans but came from the soil or plants. The scientists said roughly half of them survived because of the ice.
“These are viruses that would have thrived in extreme environments,” said Matthew Sullivan, who co-authored the study and is the director of Ohio State’s Center of Microbiome Science. “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.”
Sullivan reportedly added that the technology the researchers used to study the microbes and viruses inside the ice could help identify similar genetic sequences in other ice environments.
Lonnie Thompson, the senior author of the story, noted the climate change angle, saying the discovery of the viruses could help scientists understand how viruses respond to a changing climate.
“We know very little about viruses and microbes in these extreme environments and what is actually there,” Thompson 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?”
The Ohio State University explained how the viruses could come to be frozen in ice.
“The ice cores contain layers of ice that accumulate year after year, trapping whatever was in the atmosphere around them at the time each layer froze. Those layers create a timeline of sorts, which scientists have used to understand more about climate change, microbes, viruses and gases throughout history,” OSU explained.
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