Nearly 1,000 species of microbes have just been discovered in ‘extreme’ Tibetan glaciers

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Living like a microbe on the Tibetan plateau is not easy. Freezing temperatures, high levels of solar radiation, not much to eat, and you’d be regularly frozen and then thawed depending on the time of year.

So it’s a little surprising that under these “extreme environmental conditions” scientists discovered 968 species with an extremely diverse range of microbes. The discovery comes from the first dedicated catalog of the glacial ecosystem genome.

“The surfaces of glaciers support a wide range of life forms, including bacteria, algae, archaea, fungi and other microeukaryotes. Microorganisms have demonstrated the ability to adapt to these extreme conditions and to contribute to vital ecological processes,” he added. wrote the team in their new journal.

“Glacier ice can also act as a record of microorganisms from the past, with ancient (over 10,000 years old) airborne microorganisms being successfully revived. Therefore, the glacial microbiome is also an invaluable timeline of microbial life on our planet.

The researchers focused on a specific group of glaciers – the Tibetan Plateau. This 2.5 million square kilometer region is an important source of water for surrounding regions in Asia and has been particularly affected by climate change, with more than 80% of glaciers having begun to retreat.

Not only is it important for us to know what microbes are up there (just in case they could be a problem for humans and the ecosystem as the ice melts), but if we don’t note what species are currently present, climate change could soon cause them to be lost to history.

“We present here the first, to our knowledge, a catalog of genomes and genes dedicated to glacial ecosystems, comprising 3,241 metagenome-assembled genomes and genomes and 25 million non-redundant proteins from 85 Tibetan glacial metagenomes and 883 cultured isolates” , the team, led by Lanzhou University ecologist Yongqin Liu, written in their diary.

The researchers undertook a colossal effort, sampling snow, ice and dust of 21 Tibetan glaciers between 2016 and 2020. They used metagenomic methods on the samples to collect all the genetic material present; they also grew some of the microbes in a lab to learn more about them and to recover a larger proportion of their genome.

Interestingly, 82% of the genomes were from new species. A whopping 11% of species were found in a single glacier, while 10% were found in almost all glaciers studied.

The project has evolved into what researchers call the “Tibetan Glacier Genome and Gene” (TG2G) catalog, and we hope it will be useful to researchers in the future, with new additions as new species emerge. will be discovered.

“The TG2G catalog offers a database and platform for archiving, analyzing and comparing glacier microbiomes at the genome and gene level. It is particularly timely as the glacier ecosystem is threatened by global warming and glaciers are retreating at an unprecedented rate.” writes the team.

“We envision that the catalog will form the basis of a comprehensive global repository for glacier microbiome data.”

The research has been published in Natural biotechnology.

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