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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 5,000 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

Child with smallpox rash, showing the characteristic raised blisters with a central depression

Smallpox is an eradicated infectious disease of humans caused by the Variola major and V. minor viruses. V. major causes a serious disease with a mortality rate of around 30%; V. minor is associated with much milder symptoms and mortality below 1%. The virus is mainly transmitted by the respiratory route but can also be carried on contaminated objects. Smallpox preferentially infects skin cells, resulting in a usually maculopapular rash, and later, raised fluid-filled blisters. Most V. major survivors have permanent scarring, commonly on the face, which can be extensive. Less common long-term complications include blindness resulting from corneal ulceration and scarring, and in young children, limb deformities due to arthritis and osteomyelitis.

Smallpox probably emerged in human populations in about 10,000 BC; the mummified body of Egyptian pharaoh Ramses V shows evidence of smallpox rash. The disease was responsible for an estimated 300–500 million deaths during the 20th century. Smallpox vaccine, the earliest vaccine, was developed in the 18th century. After intensive vaccination campaigns, the last natural infection occurred in 1977. Smallpox was certified the first infectious disease to be eradicated globally in 1979. Debate is ongoing over whether all stocks of the virus should be destroyed.

Selected image

Aedes aegypti mosquito biting a human

Aedes aegypti can transmit the chikungunya, dengue, yellow fever and Zika viruses. The mosquito is widespread in tropical and subtropical regions, with mosquito control being key to disease prevention.

Credit: United States Department of Agriculture (2000)

In the news

Map showing the distribution of coronavirus cases; black: highest incidence; dark red to pink: decreasing incidence; grey: no recorded cases
Map showing the distribution of coronavirus cases; black: highest incidence; dark red to pink: decreasing incidence; grey: no recorded cases

4 April: The ongoing pandemic of a novel coronavirus is accelerating rapidly; more than a million confirmed cases, including more than 57,000 deaths, have been documented globally since the outbreak began in December 2019. WHO 1, 2

27 March: An international, randomised, non-blinded, clinical trial organised by the World Health Organization of four potential treatments for COVID-19remdesivir; chloroquine or hydroxychloroquine; lopinavir/ritonavir; or lopinavir/ritonavir plus interferon-beta – is about to start enrolling patients. Science, WHO

16 March: A phase I clinical trial of a messenger RNA-based vaccine candidate for the novel coronavirus begins in Seattle. NIH

11 March: The World Health Organization describes the ongoing outbreak of respiratory disease caused by a novel coronavirus as a pandemic. WHO

10 March: A patient with apparent clearance of HIV after stem-cell therapy continues to have no viable virus detectable in blood or other reservoirs after 30 months without antiretroviral treatment. Lancet

9 March: No new cases have been recorded in three weeks in the ongoing Ebola virus outbreak in the North Kivu and Ituri provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo; as of 3 March there had been a total of 3444 cases, including 2264 deaths, since the outbreak began in August 2018. WHO 1, 2

False-coloured electron micrograph of novel coronavirus
False-coloured electron micrograph of novel coronavirus

12 February: The ongoing Ebola virus outbreak in the North Kivu and Ituri provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo remains a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, according to the World Health Organization. WHO 1

7 February: Chinese scientists announce that novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) is 99% identical to a coronavirus isolated from pangolins, suggesting these animals might be an intermediate host. Nature

5 February: A study of 2658 samples from 38 different types of cancer found that 16% were associated with a virus, higher than previous estimates, but did not identify any new candidate tumour viruses. Nat Genet

4 February: Over 2500 putative circular DNA virus genomes are catalogued from metagenomic surveys of human and animal samples, including over 600 dissimilar to existing virus groups. eLife, Science

3 February: The US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases stops the South African HVTN 702 Phase IIb/III clinical trial of an investigational HIV vaccine early, after the vaccine failed to prevent HIV infection. NIH

Selected article

Ribbon diagram of the Dicer enzyme from Giardia intestinalis

RNA interference is a type of gene silencing that forms an important part of the immune response against viruses and other foreign genetic material in plants and many other eukaryotes. A cell enzyme called Dicer (pictured) cleaves double-stranded RNA molecules found in the cell cytoplasm – such as the genome of an RNA virus or its replication intermediates – into short fragments termed small interfering RNAs (siRNAs). These are separated into single strands and integrated into a large multi-protein RNA-induced silencing complex, where they recognise their complementary messenger RNA (mRNA) molecules and target them for destruction. This prevents the mRNAs acting as a template for translation into proteins, and so inhibits, or silences, the expression of viral genes.

RNA interference allows the entire plant to respond to a virus after a localised encounter, as the siRNAs can transfer between cells via plasmodesmata. The protective effect can be transferred between plants by grafting. Many plant viruses have evolved elaborate mechanisms to suppress this response. RNA interference evolved early in eukaryotes, and the system is widespread. It is important in innate immunity towards viruses in some insects, but relatively little is known about its role in mammals. Research is ongoing into the application of RNA interference to antiviral treatments.

Selected outbreak

The deer mouse was the reservoir for Sin Nombre hantavirus in the Four Corners outbreak.

The 1993 hantavirus outbreak in the Four Corners region of southwest USA was of a novel hantavirus, subsequently named Sin Nombre virus. It caused the previously unrecognised hantavirus pulmonary syndrome – the first time that a hantavirus had been associated with respiratory symptoms. Mild flu-like symptoms were followed by the sudden onset of pulmonary oedema, which was fatal in half of those affected. A total of 24 cases were reported in April–May 1993, with many of those affected being from the Navajo Nation territory. Hantavirus infection of humans generally occurs by inhaling aerosolised urine and faeces of rodents, in this case the deer mouse (Peromyscus; pictured).

Previously documented hantavirus disease had been confined to Asia and Europe, and these were the first human cases to be recognised in the USA. Subsequent investigation revealed undiagnosed cases dating back to 1959, and Navajo people recalled similar outbreaks in 1918, 1933 and 1934.

Selected quotation

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Selected virus

Diagram of hepatitis D virus

Hepatitis delta virus or hepatitis D virus (HDV) is a small virusoid, the sole member of the Deltavirus genus. It infects humans. A subviral satellite, it can only replicate in the presence of a hepatitis B (HBV) helper virus. The spherical virion is 36 nm in diameter, with an envelope containing three HBV proteins. The single-stranded, negative-sense, circular RNA genome of 1679 nucleotides is smaller than that of any known animal virus. It has an unusual base composition for an entity that infects animals, and is extensively bound to itself to form a partially double-stranded, rod-shaped structure. These features have led to suggestions that HDV might be related to viroids, small unencapsidated circular RNAs that infect plants. Unlike viroids, HDV encodes a protein, hepatitis D antigen.

Both HDV and HBV enter liver cells using the sodium/bile acid cotransporter as their receptor. They are mainly transmitted via injecting drug use and blood products. More than 15 million people are infected with both viruses, which is associated with a greater risk of liver complications than HBV infection alone. Around one in five jointly infected patients die. The HBV vaccine protects against HDV.

Did you know?

Electron micrograph of hepatitis E virus

Selected biography

Françoise Barré-Sinoussi in 2008

Françoise Barré-Sinoussi (born 30 July 1947) is a French virologist, known for being one of the researchers who discovered HIV.

Barré-Sinoussi researched retroviruses in Luc Montagnier's group at the Institut Pasteur in Paris. In 1982, she and her co-workers started to analyse samples from people with a new disease, then referred to as "gay-related immune deficiency". They found a novel retrovirus in lymph node tissue, which they called "lymphadenopathy-associated virus". Their results were published simultaneously with those of Robert Gallo's group in the USA, who had independently discovered the virus under the name "human T-lymphotropic virus type III". The virus, renamed "human immunodeficiency virus", was later shown to cause AIDS. Barré-Sinoussi continued to research HIV until her retirement in 2015, studying how the virus is transmitted from mother to child, the immune response to HIV, and how a small proportion of infected individuals, termed "long-term nonprogressors", can limit HIV replication without treatment. In 2008, she was awarded the Nobel Prize, with Montagnier, for the discovery of HIV.

In this month

Painting depicting Jenner inoculating Phipps by Ernest Board (c. 1910)

May 1955: First issue of Virology; first English-language journal dedicated to virology

4 May 1984: HTLV-III, later HIV, identified as the cause of AIDS by Robert Gallo and coworkers

5 May 1939: First electron micrographs of tobacco mosaic virus taken by Helmut Ruska and coworkers

5 May 1983: Structure of influenza neuraminidase solved by Jose Varghese, Graeme Laver and Peter Colman

8 May 1980: WHO announced formally the global eradication of smallpox

11 May 1978: SV40 sequenced by Walter Fiers and coworkers

12 May 1972: Gene for bacteriophage MS2 coat protein is sequenced by Walter Fiers and coworkers, the first gene to be completely sequenced

13 May 2011: Boceprevir approved for the treatment of chronic hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection, the first direct-acting antiviral for HCV

14 May 1796: Edward Jenner inoculated James Phipps (pictured) with cowpox

15/16 May 1969: Death of Robert Rayford, the earliest confirmed case of AIDS outside Africa

18 May 1998: First World AIDS Vaccine Day

20 May 1983: Isolation of the retrovirus LAV, later HIV, by Luc Montagnier, Françoise Barré-Sinoussi and coworkers

23 May 2011: Telaprevir approved for the treatment of chronic HCV infection

25 May 2011: WHO declared rinderpest eradicated

31 May 1937: First results in humans from the 17D vaccine for yellow fever published by Max Theiler and Hugh H. Smith

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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