The virus under study, herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1), usually causes nothing more severe than cold sores around the mouth, says Curtis Brandt, a professor of medical microbiology and ophthalmology at UW-Madison. Brandt is senior author of the study, now online in the journal PLOS ONE.

When Brandt and co-authors Aaron Kolb and Cécile Ané compared 31 strains of HSV-1 collected in North America, Europe, Africa and Asia, "the result was fairly stunning," says Brandt.

"The viral strains sort exactly as you would predict based on sequencing of human genomes. We found that all of the African isolates cluster together, all the virus from the Far East, Korea, Japan, China clustered together, all the viruses in Europe and America, with one exception, clustered together," he says.