Ancient Microbes ("Bacteriasicles") From Melting Glaciers Are Spilling Into Oceans

By Sarah Zhang | April 26, 2012 11:47 am

spacing is important

Melting polar ice has a worrisome list of consequences—methane gas release, rising sea levels, and the liberation of long frozen 750,000-year-old microbes. While melting glaciers probably aren’t going to turn into Jurassic Park, scientists are understandably concerned how they might affect the environment. Scientific American has a new feature on the impact of these liberated microbes on ocean life:

More likely is [the] prospect that thawing ice sheets will allow ancient microbial genes to mix with modern ones, flooding the oceans with never-before-seen types of organisms. Rogers [an evolutionary biology] believes this is already taking place. “What we think is happening is that things are melting out all the time and you’re getting mixing of these old and new genotypes,” he said.

The biggest effect of these newly liberated – and potentially newly remade –microbes will likely be seen in the oceans, Christner [a microbiologist] said. Earth’s glaciers and sub-glacial sediments contain more microbial cells and carbon than all the lakes and rivers on the surface of the planet – a huge load of organic matter that, if thawed, would end up in the sea, he said.

Microorganisms have a remarkable ability to survive in the ice, staying minimally active while repairing DNA damage from radiation or oxidation. Bacteria as old as 750,000 years have been thawed and revived from glacial ice before. Read more about the possibly big effect of these small organisms at Scientific American.

Image via Flickr / DrewToYou

  • Dan Loeb

    Technically these micro-organisms are not “never-before-seen”.

  • Glidingpig

    Wouldn’t there be a pretty steady stream of these entering from glaciers already? Glaciers move and calf off old ice into the ocean.

  • Mike

    I wondered why there was a new eyeball growing in my forhead.

  • Jeff

    @Glidingpig I’m guessing the difference is that in the past there was a cycle of glacial freezing and melting, and the inner layers of ice would never become exposed enough to melt. But now that more glaciers are melting faster, some of those inner ice layers that were shielded from melting for so long are starting to melt.

  • Drew

    I agree with glidingpig. Glaciers didn’t start melting yesterday, so any kind of impact should already be present.

  • solitha

    It’s along the same idea as “the globe has warmed before”. Of course it has.

    However, never before has this type of global change been pushed so fast. Consider being in a room with a person who has a cold, versus being in the same room with a BUNCH of people with various contagious germs. Now add into that, coming in from an icy cold rain, not having had time to eat anything in a while, and having slept badly.

    Under stable conditions, the seas have been handling this kind of stuff for a long time. However, they’re currently under a heavy stress that is just getting worse, and this is another increasing vector of strain on those ecosystems that may not have time to adapt to it all.

  • floodmouse

    Granted there is a risk that these ancient microbes will cause a negative impact. Shouldn’t we also investigate any possible benefit? Is anyone sampling the water where there is a lot of melt, to look for interesting stuff?

  • Iain

    The Earth has warmed faster than this! How did the last ice age end? What caused it to end?

  • jim

    The source of global destruction is too many people. Natures way is to kill off the excess. If we are not smart enough to control our population, then natural calamities will. Problem solved.

  • Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Must be confusing for the anti-GMO crowd when nature goes a step further and modifies the gene supply with foreign genes.

    @ Iain:

    No, climate scientists are pretty sure this is the most rapid change ever, some 3 order of magnitudes more rapid than nature has been able to force change IIRC. (Dunno where I read that, but it was recent.)

    Since you don’t give a ref for your claim I assume there is none.

  • Iain

    @ torbjorn
    You don’t have a reference? then it must not exist.

    for the immediate times

    for the big picture

  • Aidan

    *Sigh* Glaciers are built layer by layer (over many, many years). There are probably still plenty of new (old) and exciting bacteria in the depths of these enormous ice sheets. The worry here Glidingpig, is the potential for ecologically dangerous bacteria flooding out at record levels and speeds. Anything that’s melted thus far is fairly recent in the geological (and ecological) timeline. As you go further back you get some pretty unique bacteria.

    Either way, it’s a concern or it’s not one. We’ll just have to wait and see at this point.

  • jd

    Iain, using global warming denialist claims that have been debunked numerous times will get you no points here. Also, Scotese does not support your big picture view either.

  • jd

    Comment deleted by author.


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