15,000-year-old viruses discovered in Tibetan glacier ice

Most of the viruses were previously unknown to humans, study finds


Research News


COLUMBUS, Ohio – Scientists who study glacier ice have found viruses nearly 15,000 years old in two ice samples taken from the Tibetan Plateau in China. Most of those viruses, which survived because they had remained frozen, are unlike any viruses that have been cataloged to date.

The findings, published today in the journal Microbiome, could help scientists understand how viruses have evolved over centuries. For this study, the scientists also created a new, ultra-clean method of analyzing microbes and viruses in ice without contaminating it.

“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 Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center who also focuses on microbiology. “The glaciers in western China are not well-studied, and our goal is to use this information to reflect past environments. And viruses are a part of those environments.”

The researchers analyzed ice cores taken in 2015 from the Guliya ice cap in western China. The cores are collected at high altitudes – the summit of Guliya, where this ice originated, is 22,000 feet above sea level. The ice cores contain layers of ice that accumulate year after year, trapping whatever was in the atmosphere around them at the time each layer froze. Those layers create a timeline of sorts, which scientists have used to understand more about climate change, microbes, viruses and gases throughout history.

Researchers determined that the ice was nearly 15,000 years old using a combination of traditional and new, novel techniques to date this ice core.

When they analyzed the ice, they found genetic codes for 33 viruses. Four of those viruses have already been identified by the scientific community. But at least 28 of them are novel. About half of them seemed to have survived at the time they were frozen not in spite of the ice, but because of it.

“These are viruses that would have thrived in extreme environments,” said Matthew Sullivan, co-author of the study, professor of microbiology at Ohio State and director of Ohio State’s Center of Microbiome Science. “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. These are not easy signatures to pull out, and the method that Zhi-Ping developed to decontaminate the cores and to study microbes and viruses in ice could help us search for these genetic sequences in other extreme icy environments – Mars, for example, the moon, or closer to home in Earth’s Atacama Desert.”

Viruses do not share a common, universal gene, so naming a new virus – and attempting to figure out where it fits into the landscape of known viruses – involves multiple steps. To compare unidentified viruses with known viruses, scientists compare gene sets. Gene sets from known viruses are cataloged in scientific databases.

Those database comparisons showed that four of the viruses in the Guliya ice cap cores had previously been identified and were from virus families that typically infect bacteria. The researchers found the viruses in concentrations much lower than have been found to exist in oceans or soil.

The researchers’ analysis showed that the viruses likely originated with soil or plants, not with animals or humans, based on both the environment and the databases of known viruses.

The study of viruses in glaciers is relatively new: Just two previous studies have identified viruses in ancient glacier ice. But it is an area of science that is becoming more important as the climate changes, said Lonnie Thompson, senior author of the study, distinguished university professor of earth sciences at Ohio State and senior research scientist at the Byrd Center.

“We know very little about viruses and microbes in these extreme environments, and what is actually there,” Thompson said. “The documentation and understanding of that is extremely important: How do bacteria and viruses respond to climate change? What happens when we go from an ice age to a warm period like we’re in now?”


This study was an interdisciplinary effort between Ohio State’s Byrd Center and its Center for Microbiome Science. The 2015 Guliya ice cores were collected and analyzed as part of a collaborative program between the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center and the Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation and the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Funding also came from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy.

From EurekAlert!

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July 20, 2021 6:19 pm

Just what we need.

Reply to  Scissor
July 20, 2021 7:18 pm

Just don’t let Fauci get a hold of it…he very sneaky

Danny Davis
Reply to  Scissor
July 20, 2021 8:42 pm

Seems they saw thru the virus laden core with that Makita in the background….
Real Smart thinking there.

Gordon A. Dressler
Reply to  Danny Davis
July 21, 2021 8:54 am

Danny, you have to understand that that Makita cutoff saw is a very special order kind . . . just like the tape measure being laid directly onto the ice core and the special “researchers” working without any medical-grade masks or full body suits, one of which is shown breathing directly down onto the core from only about 1 foot above . . . so as to be entirely consistent with the statement in the second paragraph of the above article: “For this study, the scientists also created a new, ultra-clean method of analyzing microbes and viruses in ice without contaminating it.”


Zig Zag Wanderer
Reply to  Scissor
July 21, 2021 4:38 am

I know: let’s play around with it, see if we can make it communicable easily between people, and save heaps of money by not enforcing proper protocols to prevent it escaping.

I’m sure that some dimwit in America will pay us to do it.

Stephen Philbrick
July 20, 2021 6:21 pm

Interesting discussion (from 2006) at this location:


July 20, 2021 6:22 pm

No mention of the means for isolating these viruses. You do not take the organic part of a melted ice core and simply sequence 33 different viruses—not even close to that simple. Keeping the sample sterile is moot. How do they separate/isolate, culture, purify, and sequence a virus? Since this has not been done on any of the current disease viruses, it is up to these researchers to describe better procedures than our current bad practices. Otherwise, not much meaning here.

Reply to  Charles Higley
July 20, 2021 6:48 pm

Have a look at – https://microbiomejournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s40168-021-01106-w

I’m not qualified to judge whether the procedures described are appropriate

Michael S. Kelly
Reply to  Charles Higley
July 21, 2021 5:11 am

They just drop a few chunks of the ice into a Mister Virus, and voilà! A perfectly sequenced genome emerges. Why would you question that?

Reply to  Charles Higley
July 21, 2021 9:53 am

As long as it doesn’t go oozing out of its pickle jar and onto my front steps, I’m fine with it. Just don’t let Whats-his-name, that short fellow in a lab coat, know about it. He’d try to make a pet of it and call it Bob.

July 20, 2021 6:41 pm

Gain of function experiments are hopefully already on the way..

Reply to  E. Schaffer
July 20, 2021 6:53 pm

Don’t let Dr. Fauci get a hold on it.

Gordon A. Dressler
July 20, 2021 6:55 pm

No problem at all, just wear masks that are available from the local dollar store . . . CDC and NIAID both effuse over their effectiveness in preventing the spread of viruses!

Joel Snider
Reply to  Gordon A. Dressler
July 21, 2021 1:43 pm

The modern version of waving a cross at a vampire.
Superstition and virtue signal all in one.

Shoki Kaneda
July 20, 2021 6:56 pm

They shouldn’t have announced this. Fauci will want to do gain-of-function on them.

Gordon A. Dressler
Reply to  Shoki Kaneda
July 20, 2021 7:10 pm

Actually not Fauci, but the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which Fauci denied in Congressional testimony (as an outright lie) to ever having funded for gain-of-function research.

Reply to  Gordon A. Dressler
July 20, 2021 8:33 pm

Fauci just gave approval to fund other projects at Wuhan. That allowed the Wuhan lab to use their own money for the “gain of function” work ..

Gordon A. Dressler
Reply to  walt
July 21, 2021 8:33 am

Or so goes one version of the story put forth for consumption by the gullible public.

For others that seek truth here are the FACTS:

Perhaps the most damning evidence showing Dr. Fauci/NIAID directly funded gain-of-function research at WIV is a scientific paper linked in an article published by scientific journal nature medicine (full version of it available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4797993/ ) reporting on research using mice that provides these specific statements taken verbatim from the referenced paper’s main body text:
“Therefore, we synthesized the SHC014 spike in the context of the replication-competent, mouse-adapted SARS-CoV backbone (we hereafter refer to the chimeric CoV as SHC014-MA15) to maximize the opportunity for pathogenesis and vaccine studies in mice . . . To test the ability of the SHC014 spike to mediate infection of the human airway, we examined the sensitivity of the human epithelial airway cell line Calu-3 2B4 (ref. 9) to infection and found robust SHC014-MA15 replication, comparable to that of SARS-CoV Urbani (Fig. 1c).” (my bold emphasis added)

Note: “pathogenesis” is med-speak for “the development of a disease and the chain of events leading to that disease” . . . now, why would one want to “maximize the opportunity” for that? And mice are the laboratory animals-of-preference for closely representing human susceptibilities to infectious diseases, especially those spread via airborne transmission.

A coauthor of the above-referenced paper, published in 2015, is Zhengli-Li Shi with her cited affiliation “Key Laboratory of Special Pathogens and Biosafety, Wuhan Institute of Virology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Wuhan, China”

Another coauthor of this paper is Xing-Yi Ge, with same cited affiliation.

Nine (9) of the coauthors of the above-referenced paper were affiliated with the Department of Epidemiology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA.

But it gets even better:

And if you do a word search for “NIH” on that scientific paper, you find the following statements, again verbatim:
This paper has been reviewed by the funding agency, the NIH. Continuation of these studies was requested, and this has been approved by the NIH.” and specifically under the subsection titled Acknowledgments “Research in this manuscript was supported by grants from the National Institute of Allergy & Infectious Disease and the National Institute of Aging of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) under awards U19AI109761 (R.S.B.), U19AI107810 (R.S.B.), AI085524 (W.A.M.), F32AI102561 (V.D.M.) and K99AG049092 (V.D.M.) . . . Human airway epithelial cultures were supported by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disease of the NIH under award NIH DK065988 (S.H.R.).” (again, my bold emphasis added)

Note that Dr. Fauci was appointed Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID) in 1984, so the work reported on in this 2015 article was done under his administration (and clearly with his knowledge as he has to sign off on grants made by NIAID), despite his recent Congressional testimony to the contrary.

That the MSM in the US and other developed countries has chosen to not follow this story to its just conclusion speaks volumes.

James Donald Bailey
Reply to  Gordon A. Dressler
July 21, 2021 8:21 am

Um, there are literally GoF research papers from Wuhan citing NIAID grants. Fauci has led the NIAID since the Reagan years.

Oh, and Obama’s GoF ban, which he ended as a going away present for Trump, had sufficiently large loopholes in it that Fauci could and did legally continue that research in Wuhan during the so-called ban.

Fauci and his boss at NIH had that authority under the ban. The military did too. But so far I haven’t seen evidence how our military used their authority to continue GoF research, nor whether American military funds made it to the Wuhan lab. But lots of our military funds did go to Daczak’s EcoHealth group. Just like the grants from the NIAID that did make it to the bat lady.

And, no one has of yet connected a specific grant to the specific research that was most likely released from that lab. The bat lady was after all doing research for the Chinese military as well as for Dr, Fauci.

Gordon A. Dressler
Reply to  James Donald Bailey
July 21, 2021 9:39 am

Speaking of Daszak’s EcoHealth Alliance non-profit research organization, there is this, published August 28,2020:
“NIH Awards EcoHealth Alliance $7.5 Million Grant Despite Political Furor” (article link: https://www.biospace.com/article/1nih-awards-ecohealth-alliance-7-5-million-grant-despite-political-furor/ )

From this article there are these quotes:
“In April, President Trump complained about a National Institute of Health (NIH) grant to the nonprofit research organization EcoHealth Alliance. The grant involved researchers at China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) . . . The NIH shortly thereafter canceled the grant, stating at the time that the grant’s goal, which was to study how coronaviruses in bats transferred to humans did not ‘align with … agency priorities’ . . .The NIH has now reinstated the $7.5 million grant. EcoHealth had already developed a partnership with a WIV laboratory in Wuhan, China, under a five-year NIH grant . . . Earlier this month, the NIH set up a way for the grant to be renewed but created conditions that many believed were impossible to meet . . . A letter sent in July by NIH Deputy Director for Extramural Research Michael Lauer to EcoHealth Alliance stated it was reinstating the grant, but also suspending it immediately until the alliance met certain conditions, including providing a sample of the pandemic coronavirus that WIV used to determine the viral genetic sequence; arrange for an outside inspection of WIV and its records ‘with specific attention to addressing the question of whether WIV staff had SARS-CoV-2 in their possession prior to December 2019’; the alliance had to explain restrictions at WIV including ‘diminished cell-phone traffic in October 2019, and the evidence that there may have been roadblocks surrounding the facility from October 14-19, 2019’; and it must ‘provide the NIH with WIV’s responses to the 2018 Department of State cables regarding safety concerns’.”

Others have more succinctly summarized the above sordid mess by simply concluding that EcoHealth Alliance was nothing more than a “cutout” organization that provided the means for NIH, which may have included NIAID, to indirectly provide funding to WIV to specifically continue its dangerous gain-of-function research using coronaviruses. When NIH complicity with WIV in prior GoF research became more widely known in the first half of 2020, NIH had to do something to “cover its tracks”, hence the disingenuous “certain conditions” imposed on the reinstated grant.

Reply to  Gordon A. Dressler
July 21, 2021 10:02 am
July 20, 2021 7:17 pm

Any evidence of mammoth-hide masks from back then?

Reply to  Mr.
July 20, 2021 7:58 pm

I thought the President said Neanderthals don’t wear masks.

Gordon A. Dressler
Reply to  Scissor
July 21, 2021 8:38 am

Of course, he would know about that.

July 20, 2021 8:30 pm

What happens when we go from an ice age to a warm period like we’re in now?”

Umm, we’re still in an ice age. This came from a university??

John Tillman
Reply to  Jeff Alberts
July 21, 2021 8:31 am

Lonnie Thompson and his wife notoriously didn’t archive their glacier “research”.

Robert of Texas
July 20, 2021 8:42 pm

Now THIS is stuff that worries me…They are just going to have to grow these – they can’t help themselves. And places like China will then just have to perform gene transfers to see if they can make it more effective. They can’t help themselves either.

So…I guess they determined the viruses age by checking their ID cards? Who is to say whether ice was lost and then started accumulating again? I hear wind can do that. We know about only a small percentage of viruses existing today so my guess is these are ancestors of existing viruses.

Next of course, this will become a matter of climate change.

Reply to  Robert of Texas
July 21, 2021 2:51 am

“Next of course, this will become a matter of climate change.”

It has already.

“How do bacteria and viruses respond to climate change? What happens when we go from an ice age to a warm period like we’re in now?”

Somebody should tell the author that this “warm period” is just an interglacial.

Reply to  Robert of Texas
July 21, 2021 3:22 am

Now THIS is stuff that worries me…They are just going to have to grow these – they can’t help themselves.

July 20, 2021 11:42 pm

No doubt they are already being genetically engineered into the next bioweapon at Wigan.

Ed Zuiderwijk
Reply to  RuddyFarmer
July 21, 2021 3:34 am

Wigan is a place in Lancashire, UK, with a claim to fame because of its rugby team. Nothing to do with viruses, old or new. That’s Wuhan. Methinks you owe the good people of Wigan an apology ….

Last edited 1 year ago by Ed Zuiderwijk
Right-Handed Shark
July 21, 2021 12:51 am

So, let me guess.. soon there will be a claim that covid 19 came not from a chinese lab, but was released from an ancient glacier by globular warmening!

Reply to  Right-Handed Shark
July 21, 2021 7:49 am

That was my first thought! Another way for the PRC to muddy the waters.

July 21, 2021 1:25 am

CC of course, what else.
Any paper out there without mention CC ?

Paul Buckingham
July 21, 2021 3:05 am

The word b*****t comes to mind.

July 21, 2021 5:13 am

New viruses from China? Now, that’s never happened before. Cue the next wave of fear by the Faucists.

July 21, 2021 7:08 am

Not that WUWT is biased, have a look at this :
Investigating Fort Detrick “call of the people”: FM spokesperson
There is a very bad smell about Fort Detrick and the 2019 Cease and Desist order. And whatever happened about the e-cigarette vaping pneumonia?

And :
America’s Impressive History of Bioweapons Attacks Against Its Own People
Either way, a major health problem needs major international action to defeat it, not fumigating while the next variant hits reset. The WHO needs to be a World Health System – these viruses know no borders. 200 bioweapon labs worldwide need to be shut down.

Zig Zag Wanderer
Reply to  bonbon
July 21, 2021 1:05 pm

I’m getting more and more convinced that this is a bot

July 21, 2021 9:02 am

Extreme climate. Extreme conditions. Extreme environments. Extremely important. Extremely icy.
A lot of use of the word extreme. It makes it easy to swallow the doomsday scenario that is CAGW. I guess…

Zig Zag Wanderer
Reply to  Philip
July 21, 2021 1:07 pm

One might even say, an extreme use of the word ‘extreme’?

Last edited 1 year ago by Zig Zag Wanderer
July 21, 2021 9:29 am

OMG!! Don’t let that ice melt. No more fossil fuels in 5 years time, then it’s either electric or rubber bands.

July 21, 2021 9:51 am

Well, I never! Someone in science finally comes up with a sensible and pragmatic attitude about climate change in re: its long-term effects…. because as most people realize, real climate CHANGE takes place over prolonged periods, and everything else is just weather.

As long as these critters stay in enclosed environments, fine by me. Might be some answers to unanswered medical issues in there, too.

July 21, 2021 9:58 am

I saw this movie. It didn’t end well.

Reply to  TonyG
July 21, 2021 12:51 pm

I read the book… Contagion (Cook)?

Didn’t see the movie.

Reply to  DonM
July 23, 2021 12:37 pm

It’s a CDC circle-jerking movie.

Joel Snider
July 21, 2021 1:41 pm

Progressives have had so much success with fear-mongering coronavirus, does anyone really think they’re going to put this particular weapon down anytime soon?

July 21, 2021 7:13 pm

“Western China?” They misspelled Tibet.

July 22, 2021 5:45 am

Great. My tax dollars are still funding a collaboration with the CCP.

Mike Tremblay
July 22, 2021 11:29 pm

According to the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses, as of 2020, 9110 species of viruses have been identified of the possibly millions, if not billions, of viruses present on the earth. Twenty-eight of the thirty-three viruses were found to be novel – that is not surprising. What is surprising is that five of the viruses have been identified – the odds just don’t support that finding, and that means that nature has already developed a response to those viruses. Furthermore, they don’t identify what these viruses are specific to – plants, animals, mammals, reptiles, birds, fish, insects, etc. Viruses just don’t transfer between species willy nilly.

This is just climate alarmist fear-mongering. The inference here is if we don’t fight climate change we can expect future pandemics from the melting icecaps. The real outcome is that if these viruses are so old, the probability is that evolution has already worked out a response.

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