You are on page 1of 8


Viruses are tiny organisms that may lead to mild to severe illnesses in humans, animals and plants.
This may include flu or a cold to something more life threatening like HIV/AIDS.
How big are viruses?
The virus particles are 100 times smaller than a single bacteria cell. The bacterial cell alone is more
than 10 times smaller than a human cell and a human cell is 10 times smaller than the diameter of a
single human hair.
Are viruses alive?
Viruses by themselves are not alive. They cannot grow or multiply on their own and need to enter a
human or animal cell and take over the cell to help them multiply. These viruses may also infect
bacterial cells.
The virus particle or the virions attack the cell and take over its machinery to carry out their own life
processes of multiplication and growth. An infected cell will produce viral particles instead of its
usual products.
Structure of a virus
A virion (virus particle) has three main parts:

Nucleic acid this is the core of the virus with the DNA or RNA (deoxyribonucleic acid and
ribonucleic acid respectively). The DNA or RNA holds all of the information for the virus and
that makes it unique and helps it multiply.
Protein Coat (capsid) This is covering over the nucleic acid that protects it.

Lipid membrane (envelope) this covers the capsid. Many viruses do not have this envelope and are
called naked viruses.
Viruses are not simply taken into cells. They must rst attach to a receptor on the cell surface. Each
virus has its specic receptor, usually a vital component of the cell surface. It is the distribution of
these receptor molecules on host cells that determines the cell-preference of viruses. For example, the
cold and flu virus prefers the mucus lining cells of the lungs and the airways.

How do viruses infect?

Viruses do not have the chemical machinery needed to survive on their own. They, thus seek out host
cells in which they can multiply. These viruses enter the body from the environment or other
individuals from soil to water to air via nose, mouth, or any breaks in the skin and seek a cell to infect.
A cold or flu virus for example will target cells that line the respiratory (i.e. the lungs) or digestive
(i.e. the stomach) tracts. The HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) that causes AIDS attacks the Tcells (a type of white blood cell that fights infection and disease) of the immune system.

Life cycle of a basic virus

There are a few basic steps that all infecting viruses follow and these are called the lytic cycle. These
1. A virus particle attaches to a host cell. This is called the process of adsorption
2. The particle injects its DNA or RNA into the host cell called entry.
3. The invading DNA or RNA takes over the cell and recruits the hosts enzymes
4. The cellular enzymes start making new virus particles called replication
5. The particles of the virus created by the cell come together to form new viruses. This is called
6. The newly formed viruses kill the cell so that they may break free and search for a new host
cell. This is called release.
Viruses have existed as long as life has been on earth.
Early references to viruses
Early references to viral infections include Homers mention of rabid dogs. Rabies is caused by a
virus affecting dogs. This was also known in Mesopotamia.
Polio is also caused by a virus. It leads to paralysis of the lower limbs. Polio may also be witnessed in
drawings from ancient Egypt.
In addition, small pox caused by a virus that is now eradicated from the world also has a significant
role in history of S. and Central America.
Virology the study of viruses
The study of viruses is called virology. Experiments on virology began with the experiments of Jenner
in 1798. Jenner did not know the cause but found that that individuals exposed to cow pox did not
suffer from small pox.
He began the first known form of vaccination with cow pox infection that prevented small pox
infection in individuals. He had not yet found the causative organism or the cause of the immunity as
yet for either cow pox or small pox.
Koch and Henle

Koch and Henle founded their postulates on microbiology of disease. This included that:

the organism must regularly be found in the lesions of the disease

it must be isolated from diseased host and grown in pure culture

inoculation of such a pure organism into a host should initiate the disease and should be
recovered from the secondarily infected organism as well

Viruses do not confer to all of these postulates.

Louis Pasteur
In 1881-1885 Louis Pasteur first used animals as model for growing and studying viruses. He found
that the rabies virus could be cultured in rabbit brains and discovered the rabies vaccine. However,
Pasteur did not try to identify the infectious agent.
The discovery of viruses
1886-1903 This period was the discovery period where the viruses were actually found. Ivanowski
observed/looked for bacteria like substance and in 1898, Beijerink demonstrated filterable
characteristic of the virus and found that the virus is an obligate parasite. This means that the virus is
unable to live on its own.
Charles Chamberland and filterable agents
In 1884, the French microbiologist Charles Chamberland invented a filter with pores smaller than
bacteria. Chamberland filter-candles of unglazed porcelain or made of diatomaceous earth (clay)kieselguhr had been invented for water purification. These filters retained bacterium, and had a pore
size of 0.1-0.5 micron. Viruses were filtered through these and called filterable organisms. Loeffler
and Frosch (1898) reported that the infectious agent of foot and mouth diseases virus was a filterable
In 1900 first human disease shown to be caused by a filterable agent was Yellow Fever by Walter
Reed. He found the yellow fever virus present in blood of patients during the fever phase. He also
found that the virus spread via mosquitoes. In 1853 there was an epidemic in New Orleans and the
rate of mortality from this infection was as high as 28%. Infectivity was controlled by destroying
mosquito populations
Trapping viruses
In the 1930's Elford developed collodion membranes that could trap the viruses and found that viruses
had a size of 1 nano meter. In 1908, Ellerman and Bang demonstrated that certain types of tumors
(leukemia of chicken) were caused by viruses. In 1911 Peyton Rous discovered that non-cellular
agents like viruses could spread solid tumors. This was termed Rous Sarcoma virus (RSV).
The most important discovery was that of the Bacteriophage era. In 1915 Twort was working with
vaccinia virus and found that the viruses grew in cultures of bacteria. He called then bacteriophage.
Twort abandoned this work after World War I. In 1917, D'Herelle, a Canadian, also found similar
Images of viruses

In 1931 the German engineers Ernst Ruska and Max Knoll found electron microscopy that enabled
the first images of viruses. In 1935, American biochemist and virologist Wendell Stanley examined
the tobacco mosaic virus and found it to be mostly made from protein. A short time later, this virus
was separated into protein and RNA parts. Tobacco mosaic virus was the first one to be crystallised
and whose structure could therefore be elucidated in detail.
Molecular biology
Between 1938 and 1970 virology developed by leaps and bounds into Molecular biology. The 1940's
and 1950's was the era of the Bacteriophage and the animal virus.
Delbruck considered father of modern molecular biology. He developed the concepts of virology in
the science. In 1952 Hershey and Chase showed that it was the nucleic acid portion that was
responsible for the infectivity and carried the genetic material.
In 1954 Watson and Crick found the exact structure of DNA. Lwoff in 1949 found that virus could
behave like a bacterial gene on the chromosome and also found the operon model for gene induction
and repression. Lwoff in 1957 defined viruses as potentially pathogenic entities with an infectious
phase and having only one type of nucleic acid, multiplying with their genetic material and unable to
undergo binary fission.
In 1931, American pathologist Ernest William Goodpasture grew influenza and several other viruses
in fertilised chickens' eggs. In 1949, John F. Enders, Thomas Weller, and Frederick Robbins
grew polio virus in cultured human embryo cells, the first virus to be grown without using solid
animal tissue or eggs. This enabled Jonas Salk to make an effective polio vaccine.
Era of polio research was next and was very important as in 1953 the Salk vaccine was introduced and
by 1955 poliovirus had been crystallized. Later Sabin introduced attenuated polio vaccine.
In the 1980s cloning of viral genes developed, sequencing of the viral genomes was successful and
production of hybridomas was a reality. The AIDS virus HIV came next in the 1980s. Further uses of
viruses in gene therapy developed over the next two decades.
Initially after viruses were discovered there was no system for classifying viruses. Consequently
viruses were named haphazardly. Most of the vertebrate viruses have been named according to:

the associated diseases (poliovirus, rabies)

the type of disease caused (murine leukemia virus),

the sites in the body affected or from which the virus was first isolated (rhinovirus,

the places from where they were first isolated (Sendai virus, Coxsackievirus)

the scientists who discovered them (Epstein-Barr virus), or

due to common cultural perceptions e.g. influenza influence of bad air or dengue evil

When did the classification of viruses begin?

The actual classification of viruses began in the 1960s when new viruses were being discovered and
studied by electron microscopy. When structure was clarified the need for a new system of
classification was felt.

Lwoff, Horne, and Tournier suggested a comprehensive scheme for classifying all viruses in 1962.
Their proposal used the classical Linnaean hierarchical system of phylum, class, order, family, genus
and species. Although the full scheme could not be adopted for viruses but animal viruses were soon
classified by family, genus, and species.

Characteristics used to classify viruses

According to the classification, viruses are grouped according to their properties, not the cells they
infect. The main criteria were the type of nucleic acid DNA or RNA.
Four characteristics were to be used for the classification of all viruses:

Type of the nucleic acid including size of the genome, strandedness (single or double), linear
or circular, positive or negative (sense), segments (number and size), sequence and G+C
content etc.
Symmetry of the protein shell


Presence or absence of a lipid membrane


Dimensions or the size of the virion and capsid

Other properties include the physicochemical properties including molecular mass, pH, thermal
stability, susceptibility to chemicals and physical extremes and to ether and detergents.
ICTV classification
Naming convention primarily depends on the genome and nucleic acid material of the viruses with the
development of nucleic acid sequencing technologies in the 1970s. Naming is performed by the
International Committee on the Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV). A complete catalog of known viruses is
maintained by the ICTV at ICTVdb.
The order is as follows;

Order virales
Family viridae

Subfamily virinae

Genus virus

Species virus

In the 2011 ICTV classification there are six orders Caudovirales, Herpoesvirales, Mononegavirales,
Nidovirales, Picornavirales and Tymovirales. The seventh Ligamenvirales has been proposed.
The Baltimore classification
This classifies according to the viral mRNA synthesis. This came from Nobel prize winner David
ICTV and Baltimore classifications used together

At present both ICTV and Baltimore classification are used together. Group I for example possesses
double stranded DNA and group II single stranded DNA, Group III with double stranded RNA and
Group IV with positive single stranded RNA and Group V with negative sense single stranded RNA.
Group VI further has single stranded RNA with reverse transcriptase that converts RNA to DNA like
HIV virus and Group VII has double stranded DNA with reverse transcriptase and this includes
Hepatitis B virus.
Viruses may infect all cells and each cellular organism has its own specific range of viruses that often
infect only that species. Some viruses in addition can replicate only in cells that have been taken over
by other viruses. These are called satellites or parasites of other viruses.
Viruses affecting animals and livestock
Viruses are important pathogens of livestock. Common infections include Foot and Mouth Disease
and bluetongue etc.
Pets like cats, dogs, and horses are also susceptible to serious viral infections. For example, dogs may
be affected by rabies, canine parvovirus infections (fatal to puppies) etc.
Honey bees used in agriculture may also be susceptible to many viral infections.
Birds may also be affected by viral infections and notable among these that may be transmitted to
humans as well includes the bird flu or avian flu. Flu virus may also be transmitted from pigs to
humans and is termed swine flu.
Other infections in animals and livestock include:

viral pneumonia in pigs

infectious atrophic rhinitis or rhinotrachitis in pigs

myxovirus parainfluenza of cows

keratoconjunctivitis (viral eye infections) of cows

polio-encephalomyelitis virus infections or gastrointestinal infections of pigs

transmissible gastroenteritis of pigs

Berans swine enterovirus infections

Foot-and-mouth disease


Horses may be affected by the Hendra virus that is highly contagious and fatal.
Viruses affecting plants and crops
Plant viruses are harmless to humans and other animals because they can reproduce only in living
plant cells. Most plants have resistance genes that protect them against viruses. Each R gene confers
resistance to a particular virus. The gene triggers death of the cells around the affected area. This stops
the infection from spreading.

When they are infected, plants often produce natural disinfectants that kill viruses. This includes nitric
oxide, salicylic acids and reactive oxygen molecules.
Viruses affecting bacteria
Viruses affecting bacteria are the Bacteriophages. These are the most common and the most diverse
group as well as the most abundant form of biological entity in water environments. There are up to
ten times more of these viruses in the oceans than there are bacteria.
Bacteriophages infect specific bacteria by binding to surface receptor molecules and then entering the
cell. The bacterial polymerase enzyme then starts to translate the virus RNA into protein. These
proteins go on to become either new virions within the cell that helps in assembling the new virions,
or proteins involved in cell lysis.
The cell is broken down within twenty minutes after injection releasing over 300 new bacteriophages.
Viruses affecting arachea
Some viruses replicate within archaea. These are usually double stranded DNA viruses. They may
have unique shapes.

Hepatitis A is a liver disease caused by hepatitis A virus

Smallpox is a contagious disease caused by a virus.

Diseases caused by viruses usually spread easily from one

person to another.

Ebola is a virus-caused disease limited to parts of Africa

Many diseases are caused by viruses. They include common

colds, flu, polio, polio, herpes, measles, rabies

As the name denotes, Hepatitis B is a disease caused by Hepatitis

B virus.

Avian influenza is a disease caused by the influenza A virus

lungs against infectious diseases caused by bacteria, fungi

and viruses.

for various diseases caused by protozoa, rickettsia and