A team including climatologists and microbiologists from Ohio State University collected two ice cores from the top of the Guliya ice cap, 22,000 feet above sea level, in western China in 2015.
The ice core was 1,017 feet deep, the study’s lead author, microbiologist Zhiping Zhong told CNN on Thursday. It was then cut into sections three feet long and four inches in diameter.
The team then analyzed the ice and found 33 viruses, at least 28 of which were previously unknown to science and survived because they were frozen.
Viruses likely originated from soil or plants, rather than humans or animals, and would have been adapted to extreme conditions, according to the study. They would not be harmful to humans, the researchers told CNN.
Ice captures the contents of the atmosphere over time, including viruses and microbes, according to the study.
“Ice provides frozen records,” Lonnie Thompson, study co-author, Ohio State professor of earth sciences and senior researcher at the university’s Byrd Polar Research Center, told CNN Thursday.
Relatively little is known about viruses in glaciers, but the field is growing in importance as the world’s ice melts due to climate change.
“It really captures the public’s attention,” said Thompson, who added that the Covid-19 pandemic has raised awareness of the importance of learning about microbial communities.
Co-author Matthew Sullivan, Ohio State professor of microbiology and director of the university’s Center of Microbiome Science, said the methods used in the study allow scientists to assess the rates of evolution of viruses. present in different layers of ice cores.
It could also have advantages in the search for life on Mars, for example.
“Once you’ve developed this new technology, it can help you answer questions in other really tough environments,” Sullivan said.