Given the coronavirus pandemic, I wanted to do a mini-series about viruses to share a little more on these infectious agents. Check back often for more posts in this series.
A virus has a very simple makeup. It is just a piece of DNA or RNA, a protein coat, and in some cases a fatty (lipid) layer. The protein coat provides protection for the piece of genetic information (DNA or RNA), and can code for different functions when the virus infects a host organism.
Viruses are considered neither alive nor dead. Viruses do not consist of cells or have any components to carry out basic functions on their own. They rely on the cell functions of their host to replicate. They hijack their host’s cells to operate in a way that allows the virus to thrive.
For this exact reason, viruses have a biological incentive to keep their hosts alive. If their hosts die, the virus can no longer replicate. Viable virus particles can exist on a surface, such as a table. But without a host, the virus can not cause disease or infection.
The first virus to be crystallized and therefore each of its parts were able to be studied, was actually a plant virus, Tobacco mosaic virus. Rosalind Franklin made this discovery in 1955. Since then, thousands of new viruses have been described.