Species of bacteria found in glacial ice could pose disease risk as glaciers melt due to global warming

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Tibet Glacier. Credit: Pixabay/CC0 Public domain

A team of researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences has discovered nearly 1,000 species of bacteria in samples of snow and ice taken from Tibetan glaciers. In their article published in the journal Natural biotechnologythe group describes the collection and study of bacteria and their concerns about the spread of disease as glaciers melt.

As the researchers note, ice caps and glaciers cover about 10% of the Earth’s surface and are also the largest reservoir of fresh water. Previous research has shown that under the influence of climate change, ice caps and glaciers have melted. In this new effort, researchers explored whether species of bacteria found in snow and ice could travel to other regions as it melted. To find out, they collected snow and ice samples from 21 glaciers in Tibet during the years 2010 to 2016. Each was melted and then tested to see what was left in the water. In doing so, the researchers discovered 968 unique species of bacteria, 98% of which had never been seen before. The findings follow a study by another team that recently found several viruses in 15,000-year-old ice, most of which had never been seen before.

The problem with these bacteria and viruses is that they could be infectious to animals and humans. As snow and ice melt, they could travel with the water in rivers and streams in populated areas. And perhaps an even bigger problem could be that modern plants and animals, including humans, lack immunity to older microbes, suggesting they could be deadly and difficult to treat. Thus, they present the possibility of triggering local epidemics and possibly pandemics.

The researchers note that the bacteria they studied came from a particularly important part of the world: melting snow and ice in Tibet feed several rivers that lead to densely populated areas in China and India. They suggest work should begin immediately to study the microbes that will soon be released from glaciers around the world to find out if there is a threat.


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More information:
Yongqin Liu et al, A genome and gene catalog of glacier microbiomes, Natural biotechnology (2022). DOI: 10.1038/s41587-022-01367-2

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Quote: Species of bacteria found in glacial ice may pose disease risk as glaciers melt due to global warming (2022, June 28) Retrieved June 28, 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022 -06-bacteria-species-glacial-ice-pose.html

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