Cold sore virus could reveal your travel history

traveler with suitcase on green

Scientists have identified the genomes of two distinct strains of a virus within an individual—an achievement that could be useful to forensic scientists trying to trace a person’s travel history.

“It’s possible that more people have their life history documented at the molecular level in the HSV-1 strains they carry.”

The research—done with the virus that causes the common lip cold sore, herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1)—also opens the door to understanding how a patient’s viruses influence the course of disease.

Most people harbor HSV-1, frequently as a strain acquired from their mothers shortly after birth and carried for the rest of their lives. Scientists made the discovery with the help of a volunteer from the United States. The research reveals that one strain of the HSV-1 virus harbored by this individual is of a European/North American variety and the other is an Asian variety—likely acquired during the volunteer’s military service in the Korean War in the 1950s.

“It’s possible that more people have their life history documented at the molecular level in the HSV-1 strains they carry,” says Derek Gatherer, a lecturer in the Division of Biomedical and Life Sciences at Lancaster University in the United Kingdom and a member of the research team.

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Earlier research by the same team has demonstrated that the geographical origin of HSV-1 can be predicted, as well. Since Asian, African, and European/North American varieties of the virus exist, and the virus is often acquired early in life, the research implies that a personal strain of HSV-1 can reflect a person’s origin. Another implication is that two individuals who have identical strains of HSV-1 are more likely to be related than those who have different strains.

“Using similar genetic fingerprinting of HSV-1 could help flesh out a person’s life story, adding an extra layer of genetic information not provided by our genomes alone. Forensic virology could be on the way in the same way in which we use genetic fingerprinting of our human DNA to locate perpetrators at the scene of a crime and to help trace the relatives of unidentified bodies,” Gatherer says.

“We’re working on better ways to sequence viral genomes from ever-smaller amounts of starting material, to allow identification and comparison of samples from diverse sources,” says Moriah L. Szpara, assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at Penn State University.

“Deep sequencing of viruses like HSV-1 will provide a better view of the viral genetic diversity that individuals harbor, and will provide valuable information about how that influences the course of disease.”

Moriah is also affiliated with Penn State’s Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences. Coauthors of the study in the journal Virology are from Princeton University, the University of Pittsburgh, Georgia State University, and Emory University.

Startup funds from Penn State, along with funding from the National Institutes of Health, the Eye and Ear Institute of Pittsburgh, and Research to Prevent Blindness, Inc. supported the work.

Source: Penn State University

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Source: Futurity