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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

Smallpox rash

Smallpox is an infectious disease of humans caused by the Variola major and V. minor viruses. V. major causes a more serious disease with a mortality rate of 30–35%; V. minor is associated with milder symptoms and below 1% mortality. The virus is mainly transmitted by the respiratory route. Smallpox localises in small blood vessels of the skin and in the mouth and throat. In the skin, this results in a characteristic maculopapular rash, and later, raised fluid-filled blisters. Long-term complications of V. major infection include characteristic scars, commonly on the face, which occur in 65–85% of survivors. Blindness resulting from corneal ulceration and scarring, and limb deformities due to arthritis and osteomyelitis are less common complications, seen in about 2–5% of cases.

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, and intensive vaccination campaigns led to smallpox being declared the first infectious disease to be eradicated globally in 1979.

Selected picture

Ribbon model of CCR5 (yellow), shown within the cell membrane (grey and red)

CCR5 is a human membrane protein that acts as a secondary receptor for HIV, enabling the viral and cell membranes to fuse. People with two copies of a mutated Δ32 form of CCR5 are naturally resistant to infection by most strains of HIV, and the normal form is the target of entry inhibitors such as maraviroc.

Credit: Thomas Splettstoesser (18 July 2012)

Selected article

Martinus Beijerinck in his laboratory in 1921

Although vaccines protecting against viral infections were pioneered in the late 18th century, the history of virology is usually considered to begin over a century later. The first evidence for the existence of viruses came from experiments using filters with pores small enough to retain bacteria. Dmitry Ivanovsky showed in 1892 that sap from a diseased tobacco plant remained infectious despite having been filtered; this agent, later known as tobacco mosaic virus, was the first virus to be demonstrated. In 1898, Friedrich Loeffler and Paul Frosch showed that foot-and-mouth, an animal disease, was caused by a filterable agent. That year, Martinus Beijerinck (pictured) called the filtered infectious substance a "virus" – often considered to mark the beginning of virology, the scientific study of viruses and the infections they cause.

In 1926, Thomas Milton Rivers defined viruses as obligate parasites. Viruses were demonstrated to be particles, rather than a fluid, by Wendell Meredith Stanley in the 1930s.

In the news

Cryo-electron micrograph of Zika virus

18 January: The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations commits $460 million to fast-tracking the development of vaccines against MERS coronavirus, Lassa virus and Nipah virus. BBC

18 November: WHO declares that Zika virus transmission and associated conditions (virus pictured) are a long-term situation which no longer qualifies as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. WHO

4 October: Capsid protein assemblies of beak and feather disease virus, which infects endangered parrot species (infected bird pictured), are visualised by X-ray crystallography. Nat Commun

Sulphur-crested cockatoo with beak and feather disease

29 September: Zika virus is shown to infect the neural crest cells that develop into the cranium, driving cell death of neural progenitor cells by their impaired cytokine signalling. Cell Host Microbe

28 September: Ranaviruses (pictured), which cause severe disease in wild amphibians, are found to be spread in the UK by human activities. Proc R Soc London B

27 September: Rift Valley fever virus infection during pregnancy substantially increased the risk of miscarriage in a cross-sectional study in Sudan. Lancet Global Health

27 September: WHO declares measles to have been eliminated from North and South America. PAHO/WHO

26 September: Broadly neutralising antibodies to HIV are found in 239 HIV+ participants in the Swiss Cohort Study, with a significantly higher rate among black people. Nat Med

Transmission electron micrograph of ranaviruses infecting a cell

15 September: In a novel mouse model of hepatitis A virus infection, acute liver inflammation is found to be caused by hepatocyte apoptosis as an intrinsic response to infection. Science

13 September: A broadly neutralising antibody, which binds to the haemagglutinin stem and recognises most influenza A strains, is shown to be produced by human memory B cells. Nat Commun

2 September: Modelling suggests that the recently approved Sanofi-Pasteur vaccine may increase the frequency of severe dengue symptoms where viral transmission is low. Science

Selected outbreak

Notice prohibiting access to the North Yorkshire moors during the outbreak

The 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak included 2,000 cases of the disease in cattle and sheep across the UK. The source was a Northumberland farm where pigs had been fed infected meat that had not been adequately sterilised. The initial cases were reported in February. The disease was concentrated in western England, southern Scotland and Wales, with Cumbria being the worst-affected area. A small outbreak occurred in the Netherlands, and there were a handful of cases elsewhere in Europe.

The UK outbreak was controlled by the beginning of October. Control measures included stopping animal movement and slaughtering over 10 million cows and sheep. Access to farmland and moorland was also restricted, greatly reducing tourism in affected areas, particularly in the Lake District. Vaccination was used in the Netherlands, but not in the UK due to concerns that vaccinated livestock could not be exported. The outbreak cost an estimated £8bn in the UK.

Selected quotation

Donald McNeil on the campaign to eradicate polio

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Selected virus

Diagram of adenovirus

Adenoviruses are a group of non-enveloped DNA viruses that make up the Adenoviridae family. At 90–100 nm in diameter, they are the largest viruses to lack an envelope. Unique spikes or fibres protrude from the icosahedral capsid, with knobs that bind to the receptor on the host cell. The linear double-stranded genome is 26 to 48 kb long, encodes 23 to 46 proteins, and has a 55 kDa protein attached to each end.

Adenoviruses infect a broad range of vertebrates, including humans, livestock, horses, dogs, bats and other mammals, as well as birds and reptiles, and usually cause infections of the upper respiratory tract. Transmission can occur by respiratory droplets or via faeces, with swimming pools being a common source of infection. A total of 57 serotypes have been found in humans; they cause a wide range of illnesses including mild respiratory infections, conjunctivitis, cystitis and gastroenteritis. In people with an immunodeficiency they can cause life-threatening multi-organ disease. No antiviral treatment or vaccine is currently available; hand washing is the best way to prevent infection. Adenoviruses are an important viral vector for gene therapy. An oncolytic adenovirus has been approved in China for the treatment of head and neck cancer.

Did you know?

Ball-and-stick model of adamantane

Selected biography

Frederick Sanger

Frederick Sanger (13 August 1918 – 19 November 2013) was a British biochemist, the only person to have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry twice.

He started to research nucleic acid sequencing in the early 1960s. In 1975, he co-invented the "Plus and Minus" technique for sequencing DNA, which could sequence 80 nucleotides at once, a significant improvement on earlier techniques. Using this method, his group sequenced most of the 5,386 nucleotides of φX174 bacteriophage – the first virus and the first DNA genome to be completely sequenced – and showed that some of its genes overlapped. In 1977, he and his group pioneered the Sanger (or dideoxy chain-termination) method for sequencing DNA and used it to sequence the 48,502 bp bacteriophage λ. His technique remained the most widely used sequencing method until the mid-2000s, and was used to generate the first human genome sequence. Sanger is also known for sequencing bovine insulin, the first protein to be sequenced. The Sanger Institute was named for him.

In this month

Louis Pasteur in 1878

1 July 1796: Edward Jenner first challenged James Phipps with variolation, showing that cowpox inoculation is protective against smallpox

3 July 1980: Structure of southern bean mosaic virus solved by Michael Rossmann and colleagues

6 July 1885: Louis Pasteur (pictured) gave rabies vaccine to Joseph Meister

10 July 1797: Jenner submitted paper on Phipps and other cases to the Royal Society; it was read to the society but not published

14–20 July 1968: First International Congress for Virology held in Helsinki

16 July 2012: FDA approved tenofovir/emtricitabine (Truvada) for prophylactic use against HIV; first prophylactic antiretroviral

19 July 2013: Pandoravirus described, with a genome twice as large as Megavirus

24–30 July 1966: International Committee on Nomenclature of Viruses (later the ICTV) founded

25 July 1985: Film star Rock Hudson made his AIDS diagnosis public, increasing public awareness of the disease

28 July 2010: First global World Hepatitis Day

Selected intervention

Ball-and-stick model of oseltamivir

Oseltamivir (also Tamiflu) is an oral antiviral drug against influenza (flu). It was the second inhibitor of the viral neuraminidase to be developed, after zanamivir, and the first to be taken as an oral tablet. It was originally synthesised from shikimic acid extracted from the star anise plant. Oseltamivir is a prodrug that requires metabolism in the liver to the active form, oseltamivir carboxylate. This binds at the active site of the neuraminidase enzyme, preventing it from cleaving sialic acid to release the virus particle from the host cell. If taken within 48 hours of infection, oseltamivir reduces the duration of influenza symptoms by about a day. Debate is ongoing about whether it also reduces the risk of complications, such as pneumonia. Nausea and vomiting are the main adverse events. Resistance to oseltamivir has been observed in some strains of influenza virus, especially H1N1 strains, but cross-resistance to zanamivir is rare.

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