It’s common knowledge at this point that global warming is melting the world’s glaciers, leading to a rise in sea level and the destruction of habitats for life around the North and South Pole. However, scientists now have an additional concern relating to the melting of glaciers, which is that this melting may lead to the release of never-before-seen frozen viruses which have been trapped within glaciers for fifteen thousand years. As scientists have never before had an opportunity to study these mysterious viruses, they are of significant scientific interest, as not only do they offer a window into the history of the evolution of viruses, but learning about these viruses may give doctors a better chance of treating people who could potentially be affected by them. While it’s unlikely that humans will contract diseases caused by the release of these ancient viruses, the fact that so little is currently known about them leads researchers to be on high alert, as no one can say for certain what effect they might have on human beings.
Accordingly, a study, which was posted on the bioRxiv database but has not yet been peer reviewed, explores a novel method of studying these ancient viruses that minimizes the chances of contamination by modern-day bacteria. In order to prevent contamination, the researchers brought two ice core samples collected from the Guliya ice cap on the Tibetan Plateau to a cold room, where the thermometer was set to 23 degrees Farhrenheit, and cut into the ice sample with a sterilized band saw. Then, they washed the ice cores with ethanol and sterile water to expose an uncontaminated layer of ice.
By examining this layer of ice, the researchers found 33 groups of virus genuses, 28 of which were previously unknown to science. Between the two ice core samples, the microbes differed significantly, representing the fact that the two ice cores existed in very different climates at the time that the viruses became embedded in the ice. Researchers expect that glaciers around the world contain substantially more ancient, frozen viruses that are currently unknown to science.
One of the dangers posed by climate change is not only that these mysterious viruses could be released into the world, but that the melting of glaciers could destroy these preserved viruses, preventing scientists from learning more about the history of the evolution of viruses. Currently, glacial viruses are severely understudied, and climate change may have the effect of making study of these viruses impossible.