A virus is a small infectious agent that can replicate only inside the living cells of an organism. Viruses can infect all types of organisms, from animals and plants to bacteria and archaea (Koonin et al. 2006).
Since Dmitri Ivanovsky's 1892 article describing a non-bacterial pathogen infecting tobacco plants, and the discovery of the tobacco mosaic virus by Martinus Beijerinck in 1898, about 5,000 viruses have been described in detail (Dimmock et al. 2006), although there are millions of different types (Breitbart & Rohwer 2005). Viruses are found in almost every ecosystem on Earth and are the most abundant type of biological entity (Edwards & Rohwer 2005, Lawrence et al. 2009). The study of viruses is known as virology, a sub-speciality of microbiology.
Virus particles (known as virions) consist of two or three parts: the genetic material made from either DNA or RNA, long molecules that carry genetic information; a protein coat that protects these genes; and in some cases 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 (Canchaya et al. 2008).
Viruses spread in many ways; viruses in plants are often transmitted from plant to plant by insects that feed on plant sap, such as aphids; 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 (Shors 2008).
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 hepatitis evade these immune responses and result in chronic infections. Antibiotics have no effect on viruses, but several antiviral drugs have been developed.
Evolution and Systematics
The protein shell of viruses provides maximum internal volume in the most economical conformation by adopting icosahedral symmetry.
"There are several reasons why viruses adopt icosahedral symmetry. One is that triangulating a dome into 20 is the best way of producing a shell of equivalently bonded identical structures. It is the minimum free energy structure." (Cann 2004)
Learn more about this functional adaptation.
Cann, Alan. 2004 October 9. Virus structure. Leicester, UK: University of Leicester.
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