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Introduction to virus


Herpes zoster virus
Virus classification
Group: I–VII

I: dsDNA viruses
II: ssDNA viruses
III: dsRNA viruses
IV: (+)ssRNA viruses
V: (-)ssRNA viruses
VI: ssRNA-RT viruses
VII: dsDNA-RT viruses

This article relates to biological viruses. For all other types, see virus (disambiguation).
This article is intended as a generally accessible introduction to the subject. For the main encyclopedia article, please see Virus.

Viruses are obligate intracellular parasites that cannot reproduce outside cells. Viruses are grouped depending on the type of host they infect. Therefore viruses are either animal, plant or bacterial types. They are so small that it would take 30,000 to 750,000 of them, side by side, to cover 1 centimetre.

A virus consists essentially of two parts: the genetic material, a nucleic acid which contains all the information necessary for the production of new virus particles and a protein coat that protects the genetic material. The coat is sometimes a complex structure, containing enzymes and is called a capsid. Capsid shapes vary from simple helical and icosahedral (polyhedral or near-spherical) forms, to more complex structures with tails or an envelope.

Plant, animal and bacterial cells all contain two types of nucleic acid. The genetic information needed to make new proteins is always encoded in DNA: this code is translated into a specific type of RNA called messenger RNA that carries the information to the protein synthesis machinery in the cell. In contrast, viruses have only one type of nucleic acid, either DNA or RNA.

Within cells there are structures called organelles, each organelle has one or more important functions. Ribosomes make proteins many of which are enzymes. Mitochondria produce molecules that provide the cell with energy and drive the chemical reactions. These and other organelles along with cell enzymes are needed for metabolism and life. Viruses do not have organelles and must use those of a host cell to reproduce. Outside of a host cell, viruses are completely inactive and are considered neither living or dead. It has been argued whether viruses are living organisms. Some consider them non-living as they do not meet the criteria of the definition of life. However, viruses have genes and evolve by natural selection.

Viral infections in human and animals, usually result in an immune response and disease. Often, a virus is completely eliminated by the immune system. Antibiotics have no effect on viruses, but antiviral drugs have been developed to treat life-threatening infections. Vaccines that produce lifelong immunity can prevent virus infections.


Discovery of viruses

  In the late 19th century Charles Chamberland made a filter with holes small enough to remove bacteria.[1] Dimitri Ivanovski used this filter to study tobacco mosaic virus. He published the results of his experiments which proved that crushed leaf extracts of infected tobacco plants were still infectious after filtration. At the same time, several other scientists proved that, although these agents were different from bacteria, they could cause disease, and that viruses were about a hundred times smaller than bacteria.

The term virus was first used by the Dutch microbiologist Martinus Beijerinck who used the words "contagium vivum fluidum" to mean “soluble living germ”.[2]

In the early 20th century, Frederick Twort discovered viruses that infect bacteria.[3] Felix d'Herelle described viruses that caused areas of death on thin cell cultures on agar. Counting these dead areas allowed him to count the viruses in the suspension.

With the invention of electron microscopy came the first images of viruses. In 1935 Wendell Stanley examined tobacco mosaic virus and found it to be mostly made from protein.[4] A short time later the virus was separated into protein and nucleic acid parts.[5][6]

A problem for early scientists was their inability to grow viruses without using live animals. The breakthrough came in 1931, when Ernest William Goodpasture grew influenza and several other viruses in fertile chicken eggs.[7] However, some viruses would not grow in chicken eggs. The problem was solved in 1949 when John Franklin Enders, Thomas H. Weller and Frederick Chapman Robbins grew polio virus in cultures of living animal cells.[8]

Structure of viruses

  A virus particle, known as a virion consists of nucleic acid surrounded by a protective coat of protein called a capsid.[9][10] Viral proteins form the capsid. The proteins that attach to the nucleic acid are known as nucleoproteins, and together form a nucleocapsid. Some viruses are surrounded by a bubble of lipid called an envelope.


A virus next to a flea is roughly equivalent to a human next to a mountain twice the size of Mount Everest. Most viruses are around 100 nanometres in diameter.

Virus genes

There are two kinds of genetic material: deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and ribonucleic acid (RNA). The biological information contained in an organism is encoded in its DNA or RNA sequence. Most organisms use DNA, but many viruses (e.g., retroviruses) have RNA as their genetic material. The DNA and RNA of viruses consists of either a single strand or a double helix.

Viruses, although simple compared to cell-based organisms, are very efficient at reproducing. They have only a few genes compared to humans who have 20,000–25,000.[11] For example, Influenza virus has only 8 genes and rotavirus has 11. These genes encode structural proteins, i.e. form the viral structure, or non-structural proteins, that are only found in cells infected by the virus.

Most viruses produce a protein that is an enzyme called a polymerase. Polymerase is used to make new copies of the viral DNA or RNA. Often this protein is a structural protein that forms part of the virus particle. These polymerase enzymes are often much more efficient than their counterparts produced by the host cell.

In some species of virus the DNA or RNA is not a continuous molecule but is split into several separate strands. These are called segmented genomes. The Influenza virus genome is made up from 8 separate segments of RNA. When two different strains of influenza virus infect the same cell, these segments can mix and produce new strains of the virus, this is called reassortment.

Virus protein synthesis

  Cells make new protein molecules from amino acid building blocks based on information encoded in RNA. Protein synthesis generally consists of two major steps: transcription and translation.

Transcription is the process where genetic information in DNA is used to produce messenger RNA which migrates through the cell. The mRNA molecules bind to protein-RNA complexes called ribosomes where they are used to make proteins. This is called translation. The protein amino acid sequence is based on the mRNA base sequence.

Virus particles are made from several proteins that they cannot produce by themselves, therefore they rely on the host cell to make them. Viruses do this in many different ways, however, eventually all of them produce mRNA.[12] In some RNA viruses the viral genome RNA functions directly as mRNA without further modification. For this reason, these viruses are called positive-sense RNA viruses.[12]

In other RNA viruses, the genomic RNA is a complementary copy of mRNA and these viruses rely on the cell's or their own enzyme to make mRNA. These are called negative-sense RNA viruses. In viruses made of DNA the method of mRNA production is similar to a cell. Retroviruses are very different, they are based on RNA, but inside the host cell a DNA copy of their RNA is made. This DNA is then incorporated into the host's and copied into mRNA by the cell's normal pathways.[13]

Virus life-cycle

  Viruses can only multiply within a living cell. When a virus infects a cell, it makes the cell form new viruses by synthesising new viral nucleic acid and proteins, thereby forming complete new virus particles.

There are six basic stages in the life cycle of viruses in living cells:

Attachment is a binding of the virus to specific molecules on the surface of the cell. This specificity restricts the virus to a very limited type of cell. For example, the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infects only human T cells, because its surface protein, gp120, can only react with CD4 and other molecules on the T cell's surface. This mechanism has evolved to favour those viruses that only infect cells that they are capable of replicating in.

Penetration: following attachment, viruses enter the host cell by endocytosis or by fusion with the cell.

Uncoating happens inside the cell when the viral capsid is removed and destroyed by viral enzymes or host enzymes, thereby exposing the viral nucleic acid.

Replication of virus particles is the stage where a cell uses foreign messenger RNA in its protein synthesis systems to produce viral proteins. The RNA or DNA synthesis abilities of the cell produce the virus' nucleic acids by viral polymerase.

Assembly takes place in the cell when the newly created viral proteins and nucleic acid combine to form new virus particles.

Release occurs when the new viruses escape from the cell. Most viruses achieve this by causing the cells to burst, a process called lysis. Other viruses such as HIV are released more gently by a process called budding.

Viruses and disease

For more examples of diseases caused by viruses see List of infectious diseases

Human diseases caused by viruses include the common cold, the flu, chickenpox and cold sores. Serious diseases such as Ebola, AIDS and influenza are caused by viruses. The ability of viruses to cause disease is called virulence and the mechanism is called pathogenesis. Viruses cause different diseases depending on the types of cell that they infect. Some viruses can cause life-long or chronic infections where the viruses continue to replicate in the body despite the hosts' defense mechanisms.[14] This is common in Hepatitis B virus and Hepatitis C Virus infections. People chronically infected with Hepatitis B virus are known as carriers who serve as reservoirs of infectious virus. In some populations, if there is a high proportion of carriers, a disease is said to be endemic.[15]


For more details on this topic, see Vaccination.

Vaccination is a way of preventing infections by viruses. Vaccines were used to prevent viral infections long before the discovery of the actual viruses. Their use has resulted in a dramatic decline in morbidity (illness) and mortality (death) associated with viral infections such as polio, measles, mumps and rubella.[16] Smallpox infections have been eradicated.[17] Currently vaccines are available to prevent over thirteen viral infections of humans[18] and more are used to prevent viral infections of animals.[19] Vaccines may consist of live or killed viruses.[20] Live vaccines contain weakened forms of the virus that are no longer virulent. These are referred to as attenuated vaccines. Live vaccines can be dangerous when given to immunocompromised people i.e. people with weak immunity, because in these people, the weakened virus can cause the original disease.[21] Biotechnology and genetic engineering techniques are used to produce subunit vaccines. These vaccines use only the capsid proteins of the virus. Hepatitis B vaccine is an example of this type of vaccine.[22] Subunit vaccines are safe for immunocompromised patients because they cannot cause the disease.[23]

Antiviral drugs

For more details on this topic, see Antiviral drug.

    Over the past twenty years the development of antiviral drugs has increased rapidly. This has been driven by the AIDS epidemic. Antiviral drugs are often nucleoside analogues, (fake DNA building blocks), which are incorporated into DNA during its replication. DNA replication is then halted because these analogues lack the hydroxyl groups which along with phosphorus atoms, link together to form the strong "backbone" of the DNA molecule. This is called DNA chain termination.[24] Examples of nucleoside analogues are aciclovir for Herpes virus infections and lamivudine for HIV and Hepatitis B virus infections. Aciclovir, is one of the oldest and most frequently prescribed antiviral drugs.[25] Other antiviral drugs target different stages of the viral life cycle. HIV is dependent on a proteolytic enzyme called the HIV-1 protease for it to become fully infectious. There is a class of drugs called protease inhibitors which have been designed to inactivate the enzyme.

Hepatitis C is caused by an RNA virus. In 80% of people infected, the disease is chronic and without treatment they remain infectious for the rest of their lives. However, there is now an effective treatment using the nucleoside analogue drug ribavirin combined with interferon[26] The treatment of chronic carriers of the Hepatitis B virus by using a similar strategy using lamivudine is being developed.[27]

Photographs of viruses

See also


  1. ^ Horzinek MC (1997). "The birth of virology". Antonie van Leeuwenhoek 71: 15–20. doi:10.1023/A:1000197505492.
  2. ^ Chung, King-Thom and Ferris, Deam Hunter (1996). Martinus Willem Beijerinck (1851-1931): pioneer of general microbiology. AMS News 62, 539-543. PDF]
  3. ^ href="">Frederick William Twort
  4. ^ Stanley WM, Loring HS (1936). "THE ISOLATION OF CRYSTALLINE TOBACCO MOSAIC VIRUS PROTEIN FROM DISEASED TOMATO PLANTS" 83 (2143): 85. doi:10.1126/science.83.2143.85. PMID 17756690.
  5. ^ Stanley WM, Lauffer MA (1939). "DISINTEGRATION OF TOBACCO MOSAIC VIRUS IN UREA SOLUTIONS" 89 (2311): 345–347. doi:10.1126/science.89.2311.345. PMID 17788438.
  6. ^ Tsugita A, Gish DT, Young J, Fraenkel-Conrat H, Knight CA, Stanley WM (1960). "THE COMPLETE AMINO ACID SEQUENCE OF THE PROTEIN OF TOBACCO MOSAIC VIRUS". Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 46 (11): 1463–9. PMID 16590772.
  7. ^ Goodpasture EW, Woodruff AM, Buddingh GJ (1931). "THE CULTIVATION OF VACCINE AND OTHER VIRUSES IN THE CHORIOALLANTOIC MEMBRANE OF CHICK EMBRYOS" 74 (1919): 371–372. doi:10.1126/science.74.1919.371. PMID 17810781.
  8. ^ Rosen FS (2004). "Isolation of poliovirus--John Enders and the Nobel Prize". N. Engl. J. Med. 351 (15): 1481–3. doi:10.1056/NEJMp048202. PMID 15470207.
  9. ^ CASPAR DL, KLUG A (1962). "Physical principles in the construction of regular viruses". Cold Spring Harb. Symp. Quant. Biol. 27: 1–24. PMID 14019094.
  10. ^ CRICK FH, WATSON JD (1956). "Structure of small viruses". Nature 177 (4506): 473–5. PMID 13309339.
  11. ^ International Human Genome Sequencing Consortium (2004). "Finishing the euchromatic sequence of the human genome.". Nature 431 (7011): 931-45. PMID 15496913. [1]
  12. ^ a b Baltimore D (1971). "Expression of animal virus genomes". Bacteriol Rev 35 (3): 235–41. PMID 4329869.
  13. ^ Afonso PV, Zamborlini A, Saïb A, Mahieux R (2007). "Centrosome and retroviruses: the dangerous liaisons". Retrovirology 4: 27. doi:10.1186/1742-4690-4-27. PMID 17433108.
  14. ^ Bertoletti A, Gehring A (2007). "Immune response and tolerance during chronic hepatitis B virus infection". Hepatol. Res. 37 Suppl 3: S331–8. doi:10.1111/j.1872-034X.2007.00221.x. PMID 17931183.
  15. ^ Nguyen VT, McLaws ML, Dore GJ (2007). "Highly endemic hepatitis B infection in rural Vietnam". doi:10.1111/j.1440-1746.2007.05010.x. PMID 17645465.
  16. ^ Asaria P, MacMahon E (2006). "Measles in the United Kingdom: can we eradicate it by 2010?". BMJ 333 (7574): 890–5. doi:10.1136/bmj.38989.445845.7C. PMID 17068034.
  17. ^ Lane JM (2006). "Mass vaccination and surveillance/containment in the eradication of smallpox". Curr. Top. Microbiol. Immunol. 304: 17–29. PMID 16989262.
  18. ^ Arvin AM, Greenberg HB (2006). "New viral vaccines". Virology 344 (1): 240–9. doi:10.1016/j.virol.2005.09.057. PMID 16364754.
  19. ^ Pastoret PP, Schudel AA, Lombard M (2007). "Conclusions--future trends in veterinary vaccinology". Rev. - Off. Int. Epizoot. 26 (2): 489–94, 495–501, 503–9. PMID 17892169.
  20. ^ Palese P (2006). "Making better influenza virus vaccines?". Emerging Infect. Dis. 12 (1): 61–5. PMID 16494719.
  21. ^ Thomssen R (1975). "Live attenuated versus killed virus vaccines". Monographs in allergy 9: 155–76. PMID 1090805.
  22. ^ McLean AA (1986). "Development of vaccines against hepatitis A and hepatitis B". Rev. Infect. Dis. 8 (4): 591–8. PMID 3018891.
  23. ^ Casswall TH, Fischler B (2005). "Vaccination of the immunocompromised child". Expert review of vaccines 4 (5): 725–38. doi:10.1586/14760584.4.5.725. PMID 16221073.
  24. ^ Magden J, Kääriäinen L, Ahola T (2005). "Inhibitors of virus replication: recent developments and prospects". Appl. Microbiol. Biotechnol. 66 (6): 612–21. doi:10.1007/s00253-004-1783-3. PMID 15592828.
  25. ^ Mindel A, Sutherland S (1983). "Genital herpes - the disease and its treatment including intravenous acyclovir". J. Antimicrob. Chemother. 12 Suppl B: 51–9. PMID 6355051.
  26. ^ Witthoft T, Moller B, Wiedmann KH, Mauss S, Link R, Lohmeyer J, Lafrenz M,Gelbmann CM, Huppe D, Niederau C, Alshuth U. Safety, tolerability and efficacy of peginterferon alpha-2a and ribavirin in chronic hepatitis C in clinical practice: The German Open Safety Trial. J Viral Hepat. 2007 Nov;14(11):788-96.
  27. ^ Rudin D, Shah SM, Kiss A, Wetz RV, Sottile VM. Interferon and lamivudine vs. interferon for hepatitis B e antigen-positive hepatitis B treatment: meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials.Liver Int. 2007 Nov;27(9):1185-93.
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Introduction_to_virus". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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