A scientist was “shocked” to discover the herpes virus in samples taken from an oil well hundreds metres under the ground in northeast China.
Zhang Ying, a professor from the Institute of Applied Ecology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Shenyang, found large quantities of the virus in samples taken from around a dozen wells.
Scientists already knew that bacteria could survive in oil, but the discovery that viruses were also present is a very recent one and no one realised the variety and quantity of viral life forms that could be found there until Zhang started her research.
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Scientists have yet to identify and name most of these viruses, much less understand their behaviour and what risk, if any, they pose to humans.
“I am still in shock,” she said on Tuesday, following the publication of her research in the journal Microogranisms. “There is so much about the virus we don’t know.”
Scientists have identified more than 100 varieties of the herpes virus – including varieties that can be sexually transmitted among humans – and these can infect a wide variety of species, including mammals, birds, reptiles and molluscs.
Some varieties are known to cause sores and blisters, but others can destroy nerves and cause recurring and long-lasting pain.
Zhang’s team made the discovery while examining why some efforts to use bacteria to boost oil production had failed.
China’s demand for oil far exceeds its meagre reserves, and the government has funded numerous experiments looking at ways to extract the maximum benefit from its remaining supplies.
Some of these projects use bacteria that create a foam when added to crude oil, a process that makes it easier to scrape oil from the rocks.
While the technique appeared to work well in lab tests that simulated the temperature and pressure found 900 metres (2,950ft) below the earth, the results were mixed when applied for real.
In some cases the technique worked like a charm, but in others the bacteria were killed instantly.
Zhang’s research may explain why that is. Her team found that a millilitre of oil contains around 400 million viral particles a similar or even higher concentration than that found in environments such as soil or fresh water.
Genome sequencing showed that many of these viral species were phages, or the viruses that kill bacteria.
The researchers estimated there could be hundreds of viral species in the samples being examined. They compared these viruses to those in the international viral database and found there was no match for around half of them.
“The actual proportion of unknown species could be much higher than this,” said Zhang. “Our study is just the first step.”
Around 1 per cent of the viruses were found to be herpes, but the researcher admitted she could not explain how they had got there. She ruled out the possibility that they had come from a larger animal host beneath the earth, but added: “Maybe they came from the world outside. We just have no idea.”
Xiang Hua, a researcher with the Institute of Microbiology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, said it was possible that an unknown virus shared some of its genome sequence with herpes and had been categorised as such by computer.
Xiang, who was not involved in the study, also said herpes could not survive without an animal host but given the “huge” differences between bacteria and animals, the viruses could not be hosted by both at the same time.
Oil spills can cause extensive ecological devastation, but Zhang said that refined products – for example the petrol sold at the pumps – is thoroughly “cooked” so there is little risk of people being exposed to the viruses found in crude.
However, there is growing concern in the global research community that the mass melting of ice in polar areas and high mountains due to climate change will release ancient microorganisms into the present environment.
Some of these could predate the emergence of homo sapiens and humans may not have immunity against them.
Zhang said that these were valid concerns but people should not lose too much sleep about it.
Most viruses are harmless. Some are even beneficial,” she said. “Our next job is to isolate some living strains from oil samples to find out what they really are.”
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