- Researchers have found microbes on Mount Everest that can survive harsh winds and conditions at some of the world’s highest elevations.
- The research comes at a time when scientists say melting glaciers and permafrost could reawaken viruses and bacteria as the climate warms.
- However, the microbes found on Mount Everest, which were possibly transported by humans through their coughing and sneezing, are unlikely to grow and reproduce, said University of Colorado Boulder scientist Steve Schmidt, a co-author of a new study on the team’s findings.
KATHMANDU — The South Col in the Sagarmatha (Mount Everest) region faces blasts of unrelenting winds that sweep away almost everything in their path, including snow. Located nearly 8,000 meters (26,000 feet) above sea level, the southeastern ridge of this desolate terrain is where mountaineers heading to world’s tallest peak make their final camp.
A recent study published in the journal Arctic, Antarctic, and Alpine Research, shows that even the winds haven’t swept away a trail of tough microbes that can survive the harsh conditions on the Roof of the World for decades, if not centuries, left behind by mountaineers in the area.
“Some of the microbes we found were possibly transported by humans when they sneeze or cough,” said Steve Schmidt, co-author on the paper and professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. “The concern, with all the pollution that’s going on Everest, is that these microbes aren’t going to go away,” he told Mongabay, adding that he himself didn’t go to Sagarmatha to collect soil samples there.
Through his previous work, Schmidt had established ties with researchers on their way to Sagarmatha to set up the world’s highest weather station on South Col in May 2019 as part of the National Geographic and Rolex Perpetual Planet Everest Expedition (April to May 2019). He requested collections of soil samples, to which Baker Perry, co-author and professor of geography at Appalachian State University, obliged.
As part of the study, three surface sediment samples from the South Col were collected by members of the team near Camp IV. The researchers then separated smaller particles from the sample and extracted available DNA. They then used both culturing and sequencing approaches to assess the microbial diversity of the sample.
“Compared to what we have found in the tundra permafrost, the samples of Everest were thousands of times less populated with microbes,” Schmidt said. “It took quite a bit of work to find what we did find eventually,” he added.
The authors found traces of only a few varieties of microbes such as bacteria, protists and fungi in the sample. While some of the microbes found exist in many places on Earth (such as Proteobacteria and Actinobacteria), others such as Modestobacter (bacteria) and Naganishia (fungi) have only been found at high altitudes.
The study comes as researchers suggest that viruses and bacteria currently locked up in glaciers and permafrost could reawaken and infect local wildlife as the world gets hotter, increasing the risk of viral spillover and potential pandemics.
Schmidt, however, said the microbes found are “surviving” on the mountain but may not necessarily be “living,” as many microbes can go dormant for years when they are frozen. “It is unlikely that they will grow and reproduce,” he told Mongabay. To add to that, none of the microbes found have been known to be pathogenic to humans under normal conditions, he added.
That the study found traces of the fungus Naganishia confirmed that the microbe is circulating in Earth’s upper atmosphere, Schmidt said. According to him, these fungi have also been reported in other places such as the Andes in South America. Naganishia is reported to have infected immunocompromised people in Iran, but that wasn’t a cause of concern, according to the researchers.
At times, given the right angles of incidence of sunlight and melting of water, there’s a chance that the microbes will grow and come to life for a certain period, but beyond that, they will go back into inactive mode, said Schmidt. As human settlement downstream is pretty far, he said he didn’t think the findings raised any concern for the water sources. “Instead, the poop that some mountaineers leave behind is a bigger source of microbes,” he said.
Schmidt and his team, however, only looked at “living” microbes in the samples, as his lab is only equipped to deal with those. The research excluded the “nonliving” viruses that could potentially be surviving on Sagarmatha. There could potentially be viruses circulating on the mountain, but they are likely to be ones that infect bacteria, not humans, he said, adding that the team is now exploring options to run tests for viruses at a collaborating facility.
Nepali microbiologist Milan Upreti, who wasn’t involved in the study, said he also believed the microbes found by the researchers didn’t pose immediate risks to human health. “The findings show that microbes are surviving one of the harshest climatic conditions in the world,” he added. He said that may have implications for finding traces of life under harsh weather conditions on other planetary bodies. “These microbes could survive the conditions on Sagarmatha; maybe they are doing so on other planets too,” he said.
Banner image: The National Geographic and Rolex Perpetual Planet Everest Expedition team climbs up a steep slope on Lhotse Face. Image © Mark Fisher / National Geographic.
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Dragone, N. B., Perry, L. B., Solon, A. J., Seimon, A., Seimon, T. A., & Schmidt, S. K. (2023). Genetic analysis of the frozen microbiome at 7900 m a.s.l., on the South Col of Sagarmatha (Mount Everest). Arctic, Antarctic, and Alpine Research, 55(1). doi:10.1080/15230430.2023.2164999
Ekhtiari, M., Farahyar, S., Falahati, M., Razmjou, E., Ashrafi-Khozani, M., Ghasemi, Z., & Abbasi-Nejat, Z. (2017). The first report of onychomycosis caused by Cryptococcus friedmannii (Naganishia friedmannii) a basidiomycetous yeast. Medical Mycology Case Reports, 15, 25-27. doi:10.1016/j.mmcr.2017.01.002