BACKGROUND: With the exception of the oyster herpesvirus OsHV-1, all herpesviruses characterized thus far infect only vertebrates. Some cause neurological disease in their hosts, while others replicate or become latent in neurological tissues. Recently a new herpesvirus causing ganglioneuritis in abalone, a gastropod, was discovered. Molecular analysis of new herpesviruses, such as this one and others, still to be discovered in invertebrates, will provide insight into the evolution of herpesviruses. RESULTS: We sequenced the genome of a neurotropic virus linked to a fatal ganglioneuritis devastating parts of a valuable wild abalone fishery in Australia. We show that the newly identified virus forms part of an ancient clade with its nearest relatives being a herpesvirus infecting bivalves (oyster) and, unexpectedly, one we identified, from published data, apparently integrated within the genome of amphioxus, an invertebrate chordate. Predicted protein sequences from the abalone virus genome have significant similarity to several herpesvirus proteins including the DNA packaging ATPase subunit of (putative) terminase and DNA polymerase. Conservation of amino acid sequences in the terminase across all herpesviruses and phylogenetic analysis using the DNA polymerase and terminase proteins demonstrate that the herpesviruses infecting the molluscs, oyster and abalone, are distantly related. The terminase and polymerase protein sequences from the putative amphioxus herpesvirus share more sequence similarity with those of the mollusc viruses than with sequences from any of the vertebrate herpesviruses analysed. CONCLUSIONS: A family of mollusc herpesviruses, Malacoherpesviridae, that was based on a single virus infecting oyster can now be further established by including a distantly related herpesvirus infecting abalone, which, like many vertebrate viruses is neurotropic. The genome of Branchiostoma floridae (amphioxus) provides evidence for the existence of a herpesvirus associated with this invertebrate chordate. The virus which likely infected amphioxus is, by molecular phylogenetic analysis, more closely related to the other 2 invertebrate viruses than to herpesviruses infecting vertebrates (ie chordates).