Scientists found 33 ancient viruses in glaciers, 28 of which had never been detected before
TORONTO -- Dozens of viruses never before seen by humans have been found frozen in two glaciers in the Himalayas.
Researchers from Ohio State University report that the glacial ice containing the viruses dates as far back as 14,500 years. It was found more than 6,700 metres above sea level, at the Guliya ice cap in western China, and removed for analysis in 2015.
"These glaciers were formed gradually, and along with dust and gases, many, many viruses were also deposited in that ice," lead author Zhi-Ping Zhong said in a press release.
The discovery was first reported in 2020, and has now been detailed in a study in the peer-reviewed journal Microbiome. The researchers say that this is only the third time ancient viruses have been found in glacial ice.
In their study, which was published Tuesday, the researchers say that the ice samples contained genetic coding for 33 different viruses, at least 28 of which had never previously been detected.
That may sound scary, but 28 viruses is barely even a drop in the bucket compared to all the ones we know about. By some estimates, that number is as high as 10 nonillion – that's a one followed by 31 zeroes.
The remaining viruses had previously been catalogued, and – perhaps adding another bit of relief to this discovery – tend to infect bacteria, not humans or animals.
Additionally, the researchers say, environmental clues suggest that the newly discovered viruses didn't attack humans either. More likely, they thrived in plants and soil.
All of the viruses must have been able to survive in extreme cold as even 15,000 years ago, Tibetan mountaintops were far from tropical.
In addition to discovering the viruses, the Ohio State researchers say they developed a new process for analyzing microbes in ice without risking contamination.