Story at a glance

  • A group of scientists studying glacier ice discovered 28 new viruses in two ice cores that are nearly 15,000 years old.
  • Researchers analyzed ice cores removed from the Guliya ice cap — which lies around 22,000 feet above sea level — discovering 33 viruses in the samples.
  • Twenty-eight are novel, and researchers note that they appear to have survived because they were trapped in ice.

A group of scientists studying glacier ice have discovered 28 new viruses in two ice cores that are nearly 15,000 years old, according to findings published in the journal Microbiome on Wednesday. 

“These glaciers were formed gradually, and along with dust and gases, many, many viruses were also deposited in that ice,” said Zhi-Ping Zhong, lead author of the study who developed a decontamination process to study the ice. “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.”

Researchers analyzed ice cores removed from the Guliya ice cap — which lies around 22,000 feet above sea level — discovering 33 viruses in the samples. Twenty-eight are novel, and researchers note that they appear to have survived because they were trapped in ice. 

“These are viruses that would have thrived in extreme environments,” study co-author Matthew Sullivan said in a statement. “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.” 


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An analysis shows the new viruses probably originated in soil or plants rather than humans, and Sullivan said Zhong’s decontamination method to study “microbes and viruses in ice could help us search for these genetic sequences in other extreme icy environments – Mars, for example, the moon, or closer to home in Earth’s Atacama Desert.”

The research was conducted by The Ohio State University’s Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center and the Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

The study’s senior author Lonnie Thompson said only two previous studies have identified viruses in glacier ice, adding that scientists “know very little about viruses and microbes in these extreme environments, and what is actually there.” 

“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,” Thompson added. 


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Published on Jul 23, 2021