Virus particles consist of two or three parts: I) the genetic material made from either DNA or RNA, long moleculesthat carry genetic information; II) a protein coat that protects these genes; and in some cases III) an envelope of lipids that surrounds the protein coat when they are outside a cell. The shapes of viruses range from simple helical and icosahedral forms to more complex structures. The average virus is about one one-hundredth the size of the average bacterium. Most viruses are too small to be seen directly with an optical microscope.
The origins of viruses in the evolutionary history of life are unclear: some may have evolved from plasmids—pieces of DNA that can move between cells—while others may have evolved from bacteria. In evolution, viruses are an important means of horizontal gene transfer, which increases genetic diversity. Viruses are considered by some to be a life form, because they carry genetic material, reproduce, and evolve through natural selection. However they lack key characteristics (such as cell structure) that are generally considered necessary to count as life. Because they possess some but not all such qualities, viruses have been described as “organisms at the edge of life”.
Viruses spread in many ways; viruses in plants are often transmitted from plant to plant by insects that feed on plant sap, such asaphids; viruses in animals can be carried by blood-sucking insects. These disease-bearing organisms are known as vectors.Influenza viruses are spread by coughing and sneezing. Norovirus and rotavirus, common causes of viral gastroenteritis, are transmitted by the faecal–oral route and are passed from person to person by contact, entering the body in food or water. HIV is one of several viruses transmitted through sexual contact and by exposure to infected blood. The range of host cells that a virus can infect is called its “host range”. This can be narrow or, as when a virus is capable of infecting many species, broad.
Viral infections in animals provoke an immune response that usually eliminates the infecting virus. Immune responses can also be produced by vaccines, which confer an artificially acquired immunity to the specific viral infection. However, some viruses including those that cause AIDS and viral hepatitisevade these immune responses and result in chronic infections. Antibiotics have no effect on viruses, but several antiviral drugs have been developed.
The word is from the Latin virus referring to poison and other noxious substances. It was first used in English in 1392. Virulent, from Latin virulentus (poisonous), dates to 1400. A meaning of “agent that causes infectious disease” is first recorded in 1728, before the discovery of viruses by Dmitri Ivanovsky in 1892. The English plural is viruses, whereas the Latin word is a mass noun, which has no classically attested plural. The adjective viral dates to 1948. The term virion (plural virions), which dates from 1959, is also used to refer to a single, stable infective viral particle that is released from the cell and is fully capable of infecting other cells of the same type.
The first images of viruses were obtained upon the invention of electron microscopy in 1931 by the German engineers Ernst Ruska and Max Knoll. In 1935, American biochemist and virologist Wendell Meredith Stanley examined the tobacco mosaic virus and found it was mostly made of protein. A short time later, this virus was separated into protein and RNA parts. The tobacco mosaic virus was the first to be crystallised and its structure could therefore be elucidated in detail. The first X-ray diffractionpictures of the crystallised virus were obtained by Bernal and Fankuchen in 1941. On the basis of her pictures, Rosalind Franklin discovered the full structure of the virus in 1955. In the same year, Heinz Fraenkel-Conrat and Robley Williams showed that purified tobacco mosaic virus RNA and its protein coat can assemble by themselves to form functional viruses, suggesting that this simple mechanism was probably the means through which viruses were created within their host cells.
The second half of the 20th century was the golden age of virus discovery and most of the over 2,000 recognised species of animal, plant, and bacterial viruses were discovered during these years. In 1957, equine arterivirus and the cause of Bovine virus diarrhea (a pestivirus) were discovered. In 1963, the hepatitis B virus was discovered by Baruch Blumberg, and in 1965, Howard Temin described the first retrovirus. Reverse transcriptase, the enzyme that retroviruses use to make DNA copies of their RNA, was first described in 1970, independently by Howard Martin Temin and David Baltimore. In 1983 Luc Montagnier’s team at the Pasteur Institute in France, first isolated the retrovirus now called HIV.
Viruses are found wherever there is life and have probably existed since living cells first evolved. The origin of viruses is unclear because they do not form fossils, somolecular techniques have been used to compare the DNA or RNA of viruses and are a useful means of investigating how they arose. There are three main hypotheses that try to explain the origins of viruses:
Cellular origin hypothesis
Opinions differ on whether viruses are a form of life, or organic structures that interact with living organisms. They have been described as “organisms at the edge of life”, since they resemble organisms in that they possess genes and evolve by natural selection, and reproduce by creating multiple copies of themselves through self-assembly. Although they have genes, they do not have a cellular structure, which is often seen as the basic unit of life. Viruses do not have their own metabolism, and require a host cell to make new products. They therefore cannot naturally reproduce outside a host cell – although bacterial species such as rickettsia and chlamydia are considered living organisms despite the same limitation. Accepted forms of life use cell division to reproduce, whereas viruses spontaneously assemble within cells. They differ from autonomous growth of crystals as they inherit genetic mutations while being subject to natural selection. Virus self-assembly within host cells has implications for the study of the origin of life, as it lends further credence to the hypothesis that life could have started as self-assembling organic molecules.
Viruses display a wide diversity of shapes and sizes, called morphologies. In general, viruses are much smaller than bacteria. Most viruses that have been studied have a diameter between 20 and 300 nanometres. Some filoviruses have a total length of up to 1400 nm; their diameters are only about 80 nm. Most viruses cannot be seen with an optical microscope so scanning and transmission electron microscopes are used to visualise virions. To increase the contrast between viruses and the background, electron-dense “stains” are used. These are solutions of salts of heavy metals, such as tungsten, that scatter the electrons from regions covered with the stain. When virions are coated with stain (positive staining), fine detail is obscured. Negative stainingovercomes this problem by staining the background only.
These viruses are composed of a single type of capsomer stacked around a central axis to form a helical structure, which may have a central cavity, or hollow tube.
Most animal viruses are icosahedral or near-spherical with icosahedral symmetry.
This is an icosahedron elongated along the fivefold axis and is a common arrangement of the heads of bacteriophages.
These viruses possess a capsid that is neither purely helical nor purely icosahedral, and that may possess extra structures such as protein tails or a complex outer wall.