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The Viruses Portal

The capsid of SV40, an icosahedral virus

Viruses are small infectious agents that can replicate only inside the living cells of an organism. Viruses infect all forms of life, including animals, plants, fungi, bacteria and archaea. They are found in almost every ecosystem on Earth and are the most abundant type of biological entity, with millions of different types, although only about 6,000 viruses have been described in detail. Some viruses cause disease in humans, and others are responsible for economically important diseases of livestock and crops.

Virus particles (known as virions) consist of genetic material, which can be either DNA or RNA, wrapped in a protein coat called the capsid; some viruses also have an outer lipid envelope. The capsid can take simple helical or icosahedral forms, or more complex structures. The average virus is about 1/100 the size of the average bacterium, and most are too small to be seen directly with an optical microscope.

The origins of viruses are unclear: some may have evolved from plasmids, others from bacteria. Viruses are sometimes considered 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".

Selected disease

"Episode of Yellow Fever" by Juan Manuel Blanes (1871)

Yellow fever is an acute haemorrhagic fever caused by the yellow fever virus, an RNA virus in the Flaviviridae family. It infects humans, other primates, and Aedes aegypti and other mosquito species, which act as the vector. After transmission by the bite of a female mosquito, the virus replicates in lymph nodes, infecting dendritic cells, and can then spread to liver hepatocytes. Symptoms generally last 3–4 days, and include fever, nausea and muscle pain. In around 15% of people, a toxic phase follows with recurring fever, liver damage and jaundice, sometimes accompanied by bleeding and kidney failure; death occurs in 20–50% of those who develop jaundice. Infection otherwise leads to lifelong immunity.

The first definitive outbreak of yellow fever was in Barbados in 1647, and major epidemics have occurred in the Americas and southern Europe since that date. Yellow fever is endemic in tropical and subtropical areas of South America and Africa; its incidence has been increasing since the 1980s. An estimated 200,000 cases and 30,000 deaths occur each year, with almost 90% of cases being in Africa. Antiviral therapy is not effective. A vaccine is available, and vaccination, mosquito control and bite prevention are the main preventive measures.

Selected image

Bacteriophage MS2 structure

The MS2 bacteriophage was the first virus genome to be sequenced in 1976. Its capsid has an icosahedral structure made up from 180 copies of the coat protein.

Credit: Neil Ranson (7 June 2011)

In the news

Map showing the prevalence of SARS-CoV-2 cases; black: highest prevalence; dark red to pink: decreasing prevalence; grey: no recorded cases or no data
Map showing the prevalence of SARS-CoV-2 cases; black: highest prevalence; dark red to pink: decreasing prevalence; grey: no recorded cases or no data

26 February: In the ongoing pandemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), more than 110 million confirmed cases, including 2.5 million deaths, have been documented globally since the outbreak began in December 2019. WHO

18 February: Seven asymptomatic cases of avian influenza A subtype H5N8, the first documented H5N8 cases in humans, are reported in Astrakhan Oblast, Russia, after more than 100,0000 hens died on a poultry farm in December. WHO

14 February: Seven cases of Ebola virus disease are reported in Gouécké, south-east Guinea. WHO

7 February: A case of Ebola virus disease is detected in North Kivu Province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. WHO

4 February: An outbreak of Rift Valley fever is ongoing in Kenya, with 32 human cases, including 11 deaths, since the outbreak started in November. WHO

21 November: The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gives emergency-use authorisation to casirivimab/imdevimab, a combination monoclonal antibody (mAb) therapy for non-hospitalised people twelve years and over with mild-to-moderate COVID-19, after granting emergency-use authorisation to the single mAb bamlanivimab earlier in the month. FDA 1, 2

18 November: The outbreak of Ebola virus disease in Équateur Province, Democratic Republic of the Congo, which started in June, has been declared over; a total of 130 cases were recorded, with 55 deaths. UN

Selected article

Martinus Beijerinck in his laboratory in 1921

The history of virology is usually considered to begin in the late 19th century, when the first evidence for the existence of viruses came from experiments using filters with pores small enough to retain bacteria. Dmitry Ivanovsky showed in 1892 that sap from a diseased tobacco plant remained infectious despite having been filtered; this agent, later known as tobacco mosaic virus, was the first virus to be demonstrated. In 1898, Friedrich Loeffler and Paul Frosch showed that foot-and-mouth, an animal disease, was caused by a filterable agent. That year, Martinus Beijerinck (pictured) called the filtered infectious substance a "virus" – often considered to mark the beginning of virology.

Bacteriophages, viruses that infect bacteria, were characterised by Frederick Twort and Félix d'Herelle in the early 20th century. In 1926, Thomas Milton Rivers defined viruses as obligate parasites. Viruses were demonstrated to be particles, rather than a fluid, by Wendell Meredith Stanley, and the invention of the electron microscope in 1931 allowed them to be visualised.

Selected outbreak

Quarantine notices at the East Birmingham Hospital where the first case was initially treated

The last recorded smallpox death occurred during the 1978 smallpox outbreak in Birmingham, UK. The outbreak resulted from accidental exposure to the Abid strain of Variola major, from a laboratory, headed by Henry Bedson, at the University of Birmingham Medical School – also associated with an outbreak in 1966. Bedson was investigating strains of smallpox known as whitepox, considered a potential threat to the smallpox eradication campaign, then in its final stages.

A medical photographer who worked on the floor above the laboratory showed smallpox symptoms in August and died the following month; one of her contacts was also infected but survived. The government inquiry into the outbreak concluded that she had been infected in late July, possibly via ducting, although the precise route of transmission was subsequently challenged. The inquiry criticised the university's safety procedures. Bedson committed suicide while under quarantine. Radical changes in UK research practices for handling dangerous pathogens followed, and all known stocks of smallpox virus were concentrated in two laboratories.

Selected quotation

Michael Kirby on the cost of antiviral drugs

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Viruses & Subviral agents: bat virome • elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus • HIV • introduction to viruses • Playa de Oro virus • poliovirus • prion • rotavirus • virus

Diseases: colony collapse disorder • common cold • croup • dengue fever • gastroenteritis • Guillain–Barré syndrome • hepatitis B • hepatitis C • hepatitis E • herpes simplex • HIV/AIDS • influenza • meningitis • myxomatosis • polio • pneumonia • shingles • smallpox

Epidemiology & Interventions: 2007 Bernard Matthews H5N1 outbreak • Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations • Disease X • 2009 flu pandemic • HIV/AIDS in Malawi • polio vaccine • Spanish flu • West African Ebola virus epidemic

Virus–Host interactions: antibody • host • immune system • parasitism • RNA interference

Methodology: metagenomics

Social & Media: And the Band Played On • Contagion • "Flu Season" • Frank's Cock • Race Against Time: Searching for Hope in AIDS-Ravaged Africa • social history of viruses • "Steve Burdick" • "The Time Is Now" • "What Lies Below"

People: Brownie Mary • Macfarlane Burnet • Bobbi Campbell • Aniru Conteh • people with hepatitis C • HIV-positive people • Bette Korber • Henrietta Lacks • Linda Laubenstein • Barbara McClintock • poliomyelitis survivors • Joseph Sonnabend • Eli Todd • Ryan White

Selected virus

Electron micrograph of West Nile virus

West Nile virus (WNV) is a flavivirus, an RNA virus in the Flaviviridae family. The enveloped virion is 45–50 nm in diameter and contains a single-stranded, positive-sense RNA genome of around 11,000 nucleotides, encoding ten proteins. The main natural hosts are birds (the reservoir) and several species of Culex mosquito (the vector). WNV can also infect humans and some other mammals, including horses, dogs and cats, as well as some reptiles. Transmission to humans is generally by bite of the female mosquito. Mammals form a dead end for the virus, as it cannot replicate sufficiently efficiently in them to complete the cycle back to the mosquito.

First identified in Uganda in 1937, WNV was at first mainly associated with disease in horses, with only sporadic cases of human disease until the 1990s. The virus is now endemic in Africa, west and central Asia, Oceania, the Middle East, Europe and North America. A fifth of humans infected experience West Nile fever, a flu-like disease. In less than 1% of those infected, the virus invades the central nervous system, causing encephalitis, meningitis or flaccid paralysis. No specific antiviral treatment has been licensed and only a veterinary vaccine is available. Mosquito control is the main preventive measure.

Did you know?

Peanut plant (Arachis hypogaea)

Selected biography

Rosalind Elsie Franklin (25 July 1920 – 16 April 1958) was a British biophysicist and X-ray crystallographer who made critical contributions to the understanding of the fine molecular structures of DNA, RNA and viruses.

Franklin led pioneering research on the structure of tobacco mosaic virus (TMV), a rod-like RNA virus, using X-ray crystallography. She first showed that, contrary to contemporary opinion, TMV virus particles were all of the same length. With Kenneth Holmes, she showed the virus's coat is composed of protein molecules arranged in helices. She designed and built a model of the virus to be exhibited at the 1958 World's Fair. She speculated that the virus is hollow, and correctly hypothesized that the RNA of TMV is single-stranded. Her work, together with that of Donald Caspar, revealed that the viral RNA is wound along the inner surface of the hollow virus. Her laboratory, which also included Aaron Klug, studied other plant viruses, including turnip yellow mosaic virus and viruses infecting potato, tomato and pea. Franklin also worked on icosahedral animal viruses, including poliovirus.

Franklin is commemorated in the Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science.

In this month

Diagram of the human rhinovirus capsid

1 September 1910: Peyton Rous shows that a sarcoma of chickens, subsequently associated with Rous sarcoma virus, is transmissible

3 September 1917: Discovery of bacteriophage of Shigella by Félix d'Herelle

8 September 1976: Death of Mabalo Lokela, the first known case of Ebola virus

8 September 2015: Discovery of giant virus Mollivirus sibericum in Siberian permafrost

11 September 1978: Janet Parker was the last person to die of smallpox

12 September 1957: Interferon discovered by Alick Isaacs and Jean Lindenmann

12 September 1985: Structure of human rhinovirus 14 (pictured) solved by Michael Rossmann and colleagues, the first atomic-level structure of an animal virus

17 September 1999: Jesse Gelsinger died in a clinical trial of gene therapy using an adenovirus vector, the first known death due to gene therapy

20 September 2015: Wild poliovirus type 2 declared eradicated

26 September 1997: Combivir (zidovudine/lamivudine) approved; first combination antiretroviral

27 September 1985: Structure of poliovirus solved by Jim Hogle and colleagues

28 September 2007: First World Rabies Day is held

Selected intervention

Ball-and-stick model of zidovudine

Zidovudine (ZDV) (also known as AZT and sold as Retrovir) is an antiretroviral drug used in the prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS. Classed as a nucleoside analogue reverse-transcriptase inhibitor, it inhibits HIV's reverse transcriptase enzyme, which copies the viral RNA into DNA and is essential for its replication. The first breakthrough in AIDS therapy, ZDV was licensed in 1987. While it significantly reduces HIV replication, leading to some clinical and immunological benefits, when used alone ZDV does not completely stop replication, allowing the virus to become resistant to it. The drug is therefore used together with other anti-HIV drugs in combination therapy called highly active antiretroviral therapy. To simplify its administration, ZDV is included in combination pills with lamivudine (Combivir) and lamivudine plus abacavir (Trizivir). ZDV continues to be used to prevent HIV transmission from mother to child during childbirth; it was previously part of the standard post-exposure prophylaxis after needlestick injury.



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