India: Glacier collapses in Uttarakhand and causes flooding
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The researchers wrote: “Ice-entrapped modern and ancient pathogenic microbes could lead to local epidemics and even pandemics. “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 release of potentially hazardous bacteria could affect the two most populated countries in the world: China and India.”
In their study, geoscientist Dr Yongqin Liu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and her colleagues took samples of ice from 21 glaciers across Asia’s Tibetan Plateau.
Often dubbed “the Roof of the World”, this vast region — the world’s highest plateau and the largest found above sea level — is sandwiched between the Taklamakan Desert to the north and the Himalayan mountain range to the south.
The researchers sequenced the DNA of all the microorganisms they found held within their ice samples, creating a genomic database they call the “Tibetan Glacier Genome and Gene” catalogue, or “TG2G” for short.
The researchers wrote: “Glaciers have traditionally been considered extreme environments.”
They are challenging to lifeforms, they added, “in terms of limited carbon resources, low temperature, frequent freeze–thaw cycles and strong ultraviolet radiation.”
Nevertheless, the team identified 986 microbial species from within the glaciers — mostly bacteria, but also algae, archaea and fungi — around 82 percent of which were previously unknown to science.
This is not the first time the glaciers of Tibet have yielded such surprises. A study of ice cores from a single glacier back in early 2020 detected 33 different groups of viruses within the samples — 28 of which had never before been seen.
The creation of the catalogue, the team said, “is particularly timely as the glacier ecosystem is threatened by global warming, and glaciers are retreating at an unprecedented rate.
“Glacier retreat enhances nutrient and microorganism release into downstream ecosystems.”
From the catalogue, the researchers identified 27,000 potential “virulence factors” — cellular structures, molecules and regulatory systems that help bacteria colonise hosts.
Of these, 47 percent were distinct from known virulence factors, meaning that it is unclear at present how infectious these bacteria might be.
Many of the factors, the team explained, “were associated with mobile genetic elements that could enable their spread to other bacteria in downstream rivers, lakes and soils upon thawing.
“Enhanced meltwater discharge can increase the chance of these virulence factors interacting with local plants, animals and humans
“Further analyses of these factors are needed to evaluate the impact of global warming on water quality.”
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The findings may not all be doom and gloom, however — with the catalogue offering a permanent record of these bacteria that can be used for so-called bioprospecting.
This is the practice of hunting for organisms that have useful properties that can be harnessed — for example in the creation of new pharmaceuticals or even other products like cosmetics.
The creation of the TG2G database means that, even if the glaciers do one day melt and their microbial communities are lost, we may still be able to learn from them.
The full findings of the study were published in the journal Nature Biotechnology.
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