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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

"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

Tobacco mosaic virus structure

Tobacco mosaic virus was the first virus to be identified, as an infectious agent that could pass through porcelain filters, as well as the first to be crystallised. It was among the earliest virus structures to be modelled successfully.

Credit: Thomas Splettstoesser (20 July 2012)

Selected article

Prion protein in its properly folded form

A prion is an infectious agent believed to be composed entirely of protein. This is in contrast to viruses and other known infectious agents, which all contain one or both of the nucleic acids, DNA and RNA. Prions propagate by transmitting a misfolded protein state. The prion induces existing, properly folded proteins in the host to convert into the misfolded prion form. This triggers a chain reaction resulting in large amounts of the prion form, disrupting cell function and causing cell death.

Prions are responsible for the transmissible spongiform encephalopathies in mammals. Human prion diseases include Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease, Gerstmann–Sträussler–Scheinker syndrome, fatal familial insomnia and kuru. Prion diseases of other mammals include bovine spongiform encephalopathy ("mad cow disease") in cattle and scrapie in sheep. All known mammalian prion diseases affect the structure of the brain or other neural tissue. All are currently untreatable and universally fatal. Proteins showing prion-type behaviour are also found in some fungi. Fungal prions do not appear to cause disease in their hosts.

In the news

Diagram of African swine fever virus

2 July: In the ongoing Ebola virus outbreak in the North Kivu and Ituri provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) – now the second-largest Ebola outbreak in history – new cases remain stable, with 285 reported in the past 3 weeks, and a total of 2372 cases, including 1602 deaths, since the outbreak began in August 2018. WHO 1, 2

26 June: A meta-analysis of vaccinating girls and women against human papillomavirus including 60 million vaccinees finds that diagnoses of high-grade cervical intraepithelial neoplasia and cervical cancer in women and of anogenital warts in both women and men have reduced in frequency. Lancet

14 June: The WHO Emergency Committee declares that the ongoing DRC Ebola virus outbreak fails to meet the criteria for a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, despite the spread to Uganda. WHO

3 May: In the ongoing Rift Valley fever outbreak in the Mayotte Islands in the Comoro group there have been 129 confirmed cases since the outbreak started in November 2018. WHO

2 May: A European observational study in 972 gay male couples finds no HIV transmission with unprotected sex where the HIV-positive partner's virus is fully suppressed by antiretroviral therapy. Lancet

25 April: A major outbreak of African swine fever ongoing in pigs in China since August 2018 has caused the loss of at least 40 million pigs, and the virus (pictured) has also been reported elsewhere in Southeast Asia. BBC

15 April: The directors of WHO and UNICEF warn that the more than 110,000 measles cases reported globally in January–March represent a nearly threefold increase over the same period in 2018. CNN

14 April: In the ongoing chikungunya virus outbreak in Congo, 6,149 suspected cases have been reported since the outbreak began in January, with nearly half in Kouilou Department. WHO

29 March: The filamentous bacteriophage Pf is shown to increase the pathogenicity of its bacterial host, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, an important human pathogen, by protecting it from the immune system in a mouse model. Science

12 March: The plant nanovirus, faba bean necrotic stunt virus – which has a segmented (multi-part) genome, with each of the eight segments being packaged separately – is shown to be able to replicate successfully even when its DNA segments do not all enter the same cell. eLife

8 March: The International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses ratifies an update to virus classification, creating the Riboviria taxon for all RNA viruses at the new rank of realm. ICTV

5 March: Another case of apparent clearance of HIV from an infected patient after stem-cell therapy is reported. Nature

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).

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

Michael Kirby on the cost of antiviral drugs

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Selected virus

Electron micrograph of tobacco mosaic virus

Tobacco mosaic virus (TMV) is an RNA virus in the Virgaviridae family that infects a wide range of plants, including tobacco, tomato, pepper, other members of the Solanaceae family, and cucumber. The rod-shaped virus particle is around 300 nm long and 18 nm in diameter, and consists of a helical capsid made from 2130 copies of a single coat protein, which is wrapped around a positive-sense single-stranded RNA genome of 6400 bases. The coat protein and RNA can self-assemble to produce infectious virus.

Infection often causes characteristic patterns, such as "mosaic"-like mottling and discoloration on the leaves. TMV causes an economically important disease in tobacco plants. Transmission is frequently by human handling, and prevention of infection involves destroying infected plants, hand washing and crop rotation to avoid contaminated soil. TMV is one of the most stable viruses known. The fact that it does not infect animals and can readily be produced in gramme amounts has led to its use in numerous pioneering studies in virology and structural biology. TMV was the first virus to be discovered and the first to be crystallised.

Did you know?

Ball-and-stick model of adamantane

Selected biography

Jonas Salk (1955)

Jonas Edward Salk (28 October 1914 – 23 June 1995) was an American medical researcher and virologist, best known for developing the first successful polio vaccine.

Unlike most other researchers, Salk focused on creating an inactivated or "killed" virus vaccine, for safety reasons. The vaccine he developed combines three strains of wild-type poliovirus, inactivated with formalin. The field trial that tested its safety and efficacy in 1954 was one of the largest carried out to date, with vaccine being administered to over 440,000 children. When the trial's success was announced, Salk was hailed as a miracle worker and national hero. A little over two years later, 100 million doses of the vaccine had been distributed throughout the US, with few reported adverse effects. An inactivated vaccine based on the Salk vaccine is the mainstay of polio control in many developed countries.

Salk also researched vaccines against influenza and HIV. In 1960, he founded the Salk Institute for Biological Studies research centre in La Jolla, California.

In this month

Ball-and-stick model of raltegravir

6 October 2008: Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine awarded to Harald zur Hausen for showing that human papillomaviruses cause cervical cancer, and to Françoise Barré-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier for discovering HIV

7 October 2005: 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic strain reconstituted

9 October 1991: Didanosine was the second drug approved for HIV/AIDS

12 October 1928: First use of an iron lung in a poliomyelitis patient

12 October 2007: Raltegravir (pictured) approved; first HIV integrase inhibitor

14 October 1977: Habiba Nur Ali was the last person to die from naturally occurring smallpox

14 October 2010: Rinderpest eradication efforts announced as stopping by the UN

16 October 1975: Last known case of naturally occurring Variola major smallpox reported

25 October 2012: Alipogene tiparvovec, a gene therapy for lipoprotein lipase deficiency using an adeno-associated virus-based vector, was the first gene therapy to be licensed

26 October 1977: Ali Maow Maalin developed smallpox rash; the last known case of naturally occurring Variola minor smallpox

26 October 1979: Smallpox eradication in the Horn of Africa formally declared by WHO, with informal declaration of global eradication

27 October 2015: Talimogene laherparepvec was the first oncolytic virus to be approved by the FDA to treat cancer

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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