STUDY: Newly Identified Microbes Frozen In Tibetan Ice Could Create Nearly 1,000 Pandemics If Released

REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Kay Smythe News and Commentary Writer
Font Size:

Researchers at the Chinese Academy of Scientists say they have uncovered more than 900 brand-new microbes living inside glaciers in Tibet.

Ice samples taken from 21 glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau revealed never-before-seen bacteria, algae, archaea and fungi, according to the study published in Nature. Of the 968 microbes found in the region, 98% were completely unknown to science prior, the study continues.

“Despite extreme environmental conditions, such as low temperatures, high levels of solar radiation, periodic freeze-thaw cycles and nutrient limitation, the surfaces of glaciers support a diverse array of life,” the authors wrote. The Tibetan Plateau is a high-altitude region, stuck between the Himalayan mountains and the Taklamakan Desert in Asia.

The team sequenced the DNA of the organisms they identified in order to create the Tibetan Glacier Genome and Gene (TG2G) catalog, the study continues. While it’s unclear how long the microbes have been frozen in the Tibetan ice, previous studies suggest that such creatures can survive being frozen for up to 10,000 years, the study reports.

More than 27,000 potential virulence factors (molecules that allow bacteria to infect and colonize a host) exist within the TG2G catalog, according to the study. Such findings suggest that any melting of the glaciers bears the risk of unleashing a deadly virus upon the human species or the flora and fauna humans depend on for survival, the publication Live Science contends. (RELATED: ‘Frozen In Time’: Scientists Make Huge 2,100-Year-Old Discovery In Israel)

“Ice-entrapped pathogenic microbes could lead to local epidemics and even pandemics,” the authors note in the study. Back in 2020, another team found 33 different viruses living in a single Tibetan glacier, 28 of which were utterly new to science, Live Science states.

While it’s unknown if the bacteria could survive post-thaw, bacteria can transfer and exchange large chunks of their DNA. Should any of the newly identified bacteria come into contact with other modern microorganisms, the potential for future pandemics could be “particularly dangerous,” the researchers continue.

Glaciers in the Tibetan Plateau feed fresh water into the Yangtze River, the Yellow River and the Ganges River, all of which support the two of the largest global populations: India and China, Live Science notes. Should any harmful bacteria melt into the waterways, the potential for pandemic spread is almost incalculable, Live Science reports. The only upside to the rapid melting of global glaciers is the potential for such bacteria and microbes to be used in modern medicine, the researchers suggest.