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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

Shingles rash on the chest

Shingles, or herpes zoster, is a painful skin rash with blisters that, characteristically, occurs in a stripe limited to just one side of the body. The rash usually heals within 2–5 weeks, but around one in five people experience residual nerve pain for months or years.

Shingles is caused by varicella zoster virus (VZV), an alpha-herpesvirus. Initial VZV infection usually occurs in childhood causing chickenpox. After this resolves, the virus is not eliminated from the body, but remains latent in the nerve cell bodies of the dorsal root or trigeminal ganglia, without causing symptoms. Years or decades later, shingles occurs when virions in a single ganglion reactivate, travel down nerve fibres and infect the skin around the nerve. The shingles rash is restricted to the area of skin supplied by a single spinal nerve, termed the dermatome. Exactly how VZV remains latent in the body, and subsequently reactivates, is unclear.

Around a third of the population will develop shingles. Repeated episodes are rare. In the United States, about half the cases occur in people aged 50 years or older. Vaccination at least halves the risk, and prompt treatment with aciclovir or related antiviral drugs can reduce the severity and duration of the rash.

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Scanning electron micrograph of Ebola virus (green) budding from an African green monkey kidney cell (blue)

Ebola virus (coloured green), a filamentous RNA virus, budding from a chronically infected African green monkey kidney cell in culture.

Credit: BernbaumJG (28 August 2014)

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

Diagrammatic cross-section of T2 phage, showing the DNA (blue) and protein (black) components

The Hershey–Chase experiments were conducted by Alfred Hershey and Martha Chase in 1952 using the T2 bacteriophage (pictured), which is composed of DNA wrapped in a protein shell. Hershey and Chase labelled either the phage DNA using radioactive phosphorus-32 or the protein using radioactive sulphur-35. They allowed the radiolabelled phages to infect unlabelled bacteria, and then agitated in a blender and centrifuged to separate material remaining outside the bacterial cells. The majority of the 32P-labelled DNA entered the host bacterial cell, while all the 35S-labelled protein remained outside. Hershey and Chase also showed that the phage DNA is inserted into the bacteria shortly after the virus attaches to its host.

DNA had been known since 1869, but in 1952 many scientists believed that proteins carried the information for inheritance. Proteins appeared more complex, while DNA was thought to be an inert molecule used for phosphorus storage. These experiments built on earlier research on transformation in bacteria and helped to confirm that DNA, not protein, was the genetic material. Hershey shared the 1969 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the research.

Selected outbreak

The masked palm civet (Paguma larvata) is thought to have been the source of SARS coronavirus

In the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak, the first cases of the newly emerged SARS coronavirus were reported in November 2002 from the Chinese Guangdong province. The virus soon spread across Asia, with China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore being the worst affected countries; a secondary outbreak occurred in Canada. The rapid initial spread of the outbreak has been in part attributed to China's slow response to the early cases. Over 8,000 people were infected, with a case fatality rate of 11%. Those over 65 years had a much higher mortality rate, greater than 55%. The outbreak was contained by July 2003, and no cases have been reported since 2004.

At the time of the outbreak, the immediate source of SARS coronavirus was thought to have been the masked palm civet (Paguma larvata; pictured), which was sold as food in Guangdong markets. The virus was also found in raccoon dogs, ferret badgers and domestic cats. More recent research has suggested that the natural reservoir could be horseshoe bats.

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Selected virus

Structure of adeno-associated virus serotype 2

Adeno-associated viruses (AAVs) are two small DNA viruses in the Dependoparvovirus genus of the Parvoviridae family. They cannot complete their lytic replication cycle without a helper virus, which include adenoviruses, herpesviruses and vaccinia. In the absence of the helper, AAVs can integrate into the host genome at a specific site on human chromosome 19, or persist as an episome. The 20 nm icosahedral capsid lacks an envelope, and contains a single-stranded DNA genome of around 4.7 kb. AAVs infect humans and some other primates without causing disease. They generate only a mild immune response, including neutralising antibodies. The best-studied of the 11 serotypes, AAV-2, infects nerve cells, liver cells, skeletal muscle and vascular smooth muscle, using heparan sulphate proteoglycan as its primary receptor.

Its low pathogenicity makes AAV an attractive basis for viral vectors for gene therapy. Alipogene tiparvovec to treat lipoprotein lipase deficiency was the first gene therapy to be licensed, but was later withdrawn. Promising results have been obtained in early clinical trials with AAV-based gene therapy in haemophilia, congestive heart failure, spinal muscular atrophy, Parkinson's disease and the rare eye disease Leber congenital amaurosis.

Did you know?

Coccolithovirus, Emiliania huxleyi virus 86 (arrowed), infecting an Emiliania huxleyi coccolithophore

Selected biography

George Keble Hirst (2 March 1909 – 22 January 1994) was an American virologist who was among the first to study the molecular biology and genetics of animal viruses.

Hirst started to work on influenza virus in 1940, only a few years after it had been isolated. He soon discovered that the virus caused red blood cells to clump together. This phenomenon could be used to diagnose influenza, which had previously required growing the virus in ferrets. He invented the haemagglutination assay, a simple method for quantifying viruses, and later the haemagglutination inhibition assay, which measures virus-specific antibodies in serum. In 1942, he discovered the neuraminadase enzyme, showing for the first time that viruses could contain enzymes. Neuraminidase is the target of the neuraminidase inhibitor class of antiviral drugs, including oseltamivir and zanamivir. In 1962, he was also the first to propose the then-revolutionary idea that virus genomes can consist of discontinuous segments.

He co-founded Virology in 1955, the first English-language journal to focus on viruses, and directed the Public Health Research Institute in New York City for nearly 25 years (1956–81).

In this month

Red ribbon signifying solidarity with people living with HIV/AIDS

5 June 1981: First report of HIV/AIDS (symbol pictured) appeared in medical literature

6 June 1997: Gene silencing in plants shown to be a viral defence mechanism

7–13 June 1962: Donald Caspar and Aaron Klug proposed the quasi-equivalence principle of virus structure

7–13 June 1962: André Lwoff proposed a viral classification scheme based on nature of genome, type of symmetry and presence of envelope

7–13 June 1962: George Hirst proposed that the influenza virus genome is segmented

9 June 1981: The American Society for Virology was founded

13 June 2012: First case of Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) occurred in Saudi Arabia

18 June 1981: A vaccine against foot-and-mouth disease was the first genetically engineered vaccine

21 June 1996: Nevirapine approved, first NNRTI for HIV/AIDS

26 June 1993: Clinical trial of hepatitis B virus drug fialuridine terminated; the drug caused several fatalities due to lactic acidosis

28 June 2011: FAO declared rinderpest eradicated

30 June 1985: Ryan White was denied re-admittance to his school after an AIDS diagnosis, in a case that changed public perceptions of the disease

Selected intervention

Child receiving the oral polio vaccine

Two polio vaccines are used against the paralytic disease polio. The first, developed by Jonas Salk, consists of inactivated poliovirus. Based on three wild virulent strains, inactivated using formalin, it is administered by injection and is very safe. It confers IgG-mediated immunity, which prevents poliovirus from entering the bloodstream and protects the motor neurons, eliminating the risk of bulbar polio and post-polio syndrome. The second, developed by Albert Sabin, originally consisted of three live virus strains, attenuated by growth in cell culture. Since 2016, only two strains have generally been included. They contain multiple mutations, preventing them from replicating in the nervous system. The Sabin vaccine stimulates both antibodies and cell-mediated immunity, providing longer-lasting immunity than the Salk vaccine. It can be administered orally, making it more suitable for mass vaccination campaigns. In around three cases per million doses, the live vaccine reverts to a virulent form and causes paralysis. Vaccination has reduced the number of wild-type polio cases from around 350,000 in 1988 to just 33 in 2018, and eradicated the disease from most countries.



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