28 new virus species found in Chinese glacier – why it boosts search for viruses on Mars

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Scientists have found genetic codes for 33 viruses in glacier ice – at least 28 of which have never been seen before. The stunning discovery opens the door to finding microbes and viruses in other extreme environments, like Mars and the Moon.

The viruses are believed to be almost 15,000 years old, and were contained by the frozen ice.

Some of them survived because they remained frozen over thousands of years, the researchers revealed.

About half of the viruses survived at the time they were frozen, suggesting they are evolved to survive in extremely cold temperatures.

The newly discovered genetic codes proved to scientists that a new method to reveal hidden viruses could be used in other extreme climates.

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

“These are not easy signatures to pull out, and the method developed to decontaminate the cores and 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 scientists analysed ice cores taken from the Guliya ice cap on the Tibetan Plateau in China.

These ice cores show a profile of the environment year after year, as more and more ice builds up over time, locking into place whatever was in the atmosphere at that time.

Researchers can then use these timelines to investigate climate change, micro-organisms, gases, and even viruses.

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

Thirty-three virus genetic codes were discovered during the analysis.

Four had already been discovered by the scientific community, but at least 28 were brand new.

The scientists compared their genetic landscape with previously discovered viruses, to try and gauge what their natural environments would have been.

The new virus species appeared genetically similar to viruses that infect bacteria, and they originated with soil or plants.

This was just the third time that scientists have discovered viruses in ancient glacier ice.

Lonnie Thompson, senior author of the study, added: “We 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?”

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