What is a virus and how does it infect living cells?
A virus is a tiny particle that can only multiply inside a living cell of an animal, plant, or microorganism. The word virus comes from a Latin term meaning “slimy liquid” or “poison”. Viruses are very diverse and can infect almost every form of life on Earth. Some viruses cause diseases in humans, such as influenza, COVID-19, chickenpox, and measles.
A virus consists of two main parts: a genetic material (DNA or RNA) that carries the instructions for making new viruses, and a protein coat (capsid) that protects the genetic material. Some viruses also have an outer envelope of lipids (fats) that helps them enter and exit cells. Viruses are much smaller than bacteria and cannot be seen with a regular microscope.
To infect a cell, a virus must attach to a specific receptor on the cell surface. Then, the virus either injects its genetic material into the cell or enters the cell whole. Once inside, the virus hijacks the cell’s machinery and forces it to make copies of the virus. The new viruses then leave the cell and infect other cells, spreading the infection.
Viruses can be transmitted in different ways, depending on the type of virus and the host organism. Some common modes of transmission are:
- Through vectors: animals or insects that carry viruses from one host to another, such as mosquitoes that transmit malaria or dengue fever.
- Through respiratory droplets: small particles that are released when an infected person coughs or sneezes, such as influenza or SARS-CoV-2.
- Through contact: direct or indirect touch with an infected person or object, such as herpes or norovirus.
- Through blood: exposure to infected blood or body fluids, such as HIV or hepatitis B.
- Through food or water: ingestion of contaminated food or water, such as salmonella or rotavirus.
Viruses are not considered living organisms by some biologists because they do not have a cellular structure and cannot reproduce on their own. However, they do have some characteristics of life, such as carrying genetic information, evolving through natural selection, and interacting with their environment. Therefore, viruses are sometimes described as “organisms at the edge of life” or “replicators”.
Viruses play an important role in the evolution of life by transferring genes between different species and creating genetic diversity. They also have many applications in biotechnology, medicine, and research. For example, viruses can be used to deliver genes into cells for gene therapy, to create vaccines against diseases, or to study how cells function and respond to infections.
How can I protect myself from viruses?
The best way to protect yourself from viruses is to prevent exposure to them and to boost your immune system. Some general tips are:
- Wash your hands frequently with soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
- Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your elbow when you cough or sneeze.
- Dispose of used tissues in a trash can and wash your hands afterwards.
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick or have symptoms of infection.
- Stay home if you are sick and seek medical attention if you have severe or persistent symptoms.
- Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces and objects in your home and workplace.
- Wear a mask or face covering when you are in public places where physical distancing is not possible.
- Get vaccinated against preventable viral diseases, such as measles, mumps, rubella, chickenpox, influenza, and COVID-19.
- Eat a balanced diet, drink plenty of water, get enough sleep, exercise regularly, and manage your stress levels.
What are some examples of beneficial viruses?
Not all viruses are harmful to humans or other organisms. Some viruses can have beneficial effects or functions, such as:
- Bacteriophages: viruses that infect and kill bacteria, which can be used to treat bacterial infections or control bacterial populations.
- Endogenous retroviruses: viruses that have integrated into the genomes of animals and plants, which can provide protection against other viruses or contribute to the evolution of new traits.
- Viral vectors: viruses that have been modified to carry foreign genes into cells, which can be used for gene therapy or vaccine development.
- Viral enzymes: viruses that produce enzymes that can degrade pollutants or synthesize useful compounds, which can be used for bioremediation or biocatalysis.
How are viruses classified?
Viruses are classified based on their structure, composition, replication strategy, host range, and evolutionary history. There is no single universal system for virus classification, but one widely used scheme is the Baltimore classification, which groups viruses into seven classes according to their type of genetic material and how they produce messenger RNA (mRNA), which is used to make proteins:
- Class I: double-stranded DNA viruses, such as herpesviruses and poxviruses.
- Class II: single-stranded DNA viruses, such as parvoviruses and geminiviruses.
- Class III: double-stranded RNA viruses, such as reoviruses and rotaviruses.
- Class IV: positive-sense single-stranded RNA viruses, such as coronaviruses and flaviviruses.
- Class V: negative-sense single-stranded RNA viruses, such as influenza viruses and rabies virus.
- Class VI: retroviruses, which have positive-sense single-stranded RNA genomes that are reverse transcribed into DNA in the host cell, such as HIV and HTLV.
- Class VII: pararetroviruses, which have double-stranded DNA genomes that are transcribed into RNA and then reverse transcribed back into DNA in the host cell, such as hepatitis B virus and cauliflower mosaic virus.