While the UK and US are only just out of the 'pandemic phase' for Covid-19, scientists are already looking ahead to the next global health crisis – and say it could be sparked by a microbe locked in a Tibetan glacier.

Researchers from Lanzhou University studied 21 glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau and found evidence of 968 microbes, most of which have never been seen before.

Worryingly, the team also identified more than 25 million protein-coding genes, including some that might influence the ability to cause disease.

'Ice-entrapped modern and ancient pathogenic microbes could lead to local epidemics and even pandemics,' the researchers wrote in their study, published in Nature Biotechnology.

In the study, the team gathered bacteria and microscopic life forms called archaea from 21 glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau, from 2016-2020.

Using genetic sequencing, the researchers uncovered evidence of 968 microbial species.

Some of the microbes are common, such as Pseudomonas aeruginosa, which is found in soil and water.

However, the vast majority (82 per cent) were found to bear little genetic similarity to microbes found in other environments.

Eleven per cent of species were only found in one glacier, while 10 per cent were located in almost all the glaciers studied.

The team also uncovered more than 25 million protein-coding genes – including some that might influence the ability to cause disease.

'Here we present the first, to our knowledge, dedicated genome and gene catalogue for glacier ecosystems, comprising 3,241 genomes and metagenome-assembled genomes and 25 million non-redundant proteins from 85 Tibetan glacier metagenomes and 883 cultivated isolates,' the researchers wrote.

The findings suggest that many microbes have evolved to withstand extreme conditions, according to the team.   

'The surfaces of glaciers support a diverse array of life, including bacteria, algae, archaea, fungi, and other microeukaryotes,' they explained.

'Microorganisms have demonstrated the ability to adapt to these extreme conditions and contribute to vital ecological processes.

'Glacier ice can also act as a record of microorganisms from the past, with ancient (more than 10,000 years old) airborne microorganisms being successfully revived. 

'Therefore, the glacial microbiome also constitutes an invaluable chronology of microbial life on our planet.' 

The Tibetan Plateau is a key source of water for some of the world's largest rivers, which means any dangerous microbes could quickly reach a large number of people if released. 

'The Tibetan Plateau, which is known as the water tower of Asia, is the source of several of the world's largest rivers, including the Yangtze, the Yellow River, the Ganges River and Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra River),' the researchers explained.


'The release of potentially hazardous bacteria could affect the two most populated countries in the world: China and India.'

Worryingly, a 2019 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that up to two-thirds of the Tibetan Plateau's remaining glaciers are on track to disappear by the end of the century. 

It is expected a third of the ice will be lost in that time - even if global warming is limited 2.7F (1.5C) above pre-industrial levels. 

The team hopes the project, which they're calling the 'Tibetan Glacier Genome and Gene' (TG2G) catalogue, will be useful for researchers in the future.

'The TG2G catalog offers a database and a platform for archiving, analysis and comparison of glacier microbiomes at the genome and gene levels. It is particularly timely as the glacier ecosystem is threatened by global warming, and glaciers are retreating at an unprecedented rate,' they concluded.

'We envisage that the catalog will form the basis of a comprehensive global repository for glacial microbiome data.'

The research has been published in Nature Biotechnology


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