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Scientists just discovered 15,000-year-old viruses in glacier ice — and they’re apparently unlike anything we have on Earth

Most of the newly discovered viruses were unknown to humans until recently

The ice held viruses nearly 15,000 years old, a new study has found.
Yao Tandong, left, and Lonnie Thompson, right, process an ice core drilled from the Guliya Ice Cap in the Tibetan Plateau in 2015. The ice held viruses nearly 15,000 years old, a new study has found.
Lonnie Thompson, The Ohio State University

Scientists recently discovered a slew of viruses in the Tibetan Plateau in China — viruses that existed about 15,000 years old, according to a study from The Ohio State University.

  • “Most of those viruses, which survived because they had remained frozen, are unlike any viruses that have been cataloged to date,” OSU said in a news release.

The study — published today in the journal Microbiome — looked to help scientists understand how viruses can evolve over time. The scientists used a new analyzing method to clean the microbes and viruses in ice without contaminating them, which allowed them to more easily understand the makeup of the viruses, according to Science Daily.

  • “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 and a researcher at The Ohio State University.

The scientists reviewed ice cores — which were originally taken in 2015 — that had layers from being frozen each year. The layers offer a timeline for scientists to explore so they can understand changes throughout history.

In total, the scientists discovered genetic codes for 33 different viruses.

  • Four of the 33 viruses were discovered by humans before.
  • Twenty-eight of those viruses are novel.
  • About 50% of the viruses seemed to have survived because of the ice.

Matthew Sullivan, co-author of the study, professor of microbiology at Ohio State and director of Ohio State’s Center of Microbiome Science, said in a release that these viruses could survive because of cold temperatures.

  • “These are viruses that would have thrived in extreme environments,” he said, according to a release. “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.

The discovery of these viruses come as the novel coronavirus has surged its way throughout the entire world for more than one year, killing hundreds of thousands in the United States alone. There have also been fears among scientists that other coronaviruses could make their way to the general population, as I wrote for the Deseret News.