Portal:Viruses

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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

Hand washing with soap is a protective measure against gastroenteritis

Gastroenteritis is an inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract involving both the stomach and small intestine, which results in diarrhoea and vomiting, and sometimes abdominal pain. It is usually caused by a virus: most commonly rotavirus and norovirus, but also adenovirus and astrovirus. Other major infectious causes include Campylobacter, Escherichia coli, Vibrio cholerae and some other bacteria, as well as protozoa. Viruses, particularly rotavirus, cause about 70% of gastroenteritis episodes in children, while norovirus is the leading cause of gastroenteritis among adults in America, causing over 90% of outbreaks.

Transmission can be from consumption of improperly prepared foods or contaminated water, or by close contact with infectious individuals. Good sanitation practices and a convenient supply of uncontaminated water are important for reducing infection. Personal measures such as hand washing with soap can decrease incidence by as much as 30%. An estimated 2 billion cases of gastroenteritis occurred globally in 2015, mainly among children and people in developing countries, resulting in 1.3 million deaths. Gastroenteritis is usually an acute and self-limiting disease that does not require medication; the main treatment is rehydration using oral rehydration therapy. A rotavirus vaccine is available.

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False-coloured transmission electron micrograph of Ebola virus

Ebola virus is a filamentous RNA virus first recognised in 1976. Four of the five known members of the Ebolavirus genus cause a severe haemorrhagic fever in humans.

Credit: Cynthia Goldsmith

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

Ribbon diagram of the Dicer enzyme from Giardia intestinalis

RNA interference is a type of gene silencing that forms an important part of the immune response against viruses and other foreign genetic material in plants and many other eukaryotes. A cell enzyme called Dicer (pictured) cleaves double-stranded RNA molecules found in the cell cytoplasm – such as the genome of an RNA virus or its replication intermediates – into short fragments termed small interfering RNAs (siRNAs). These are separated into single strands and integrated into a large multi-protein RNA-induced silencing complex, where they recognise their complementary messenger RNA (mRNA) molecules and target them for destruction. This prevents the mRNAs acting as a template for translation into proteins, and so inhibits, or silences, the expression of viral genes.

RNA interference allows the entire plant to respond to a virus after a localised encounter, as the siRNAs can transfer between cells via plasmodesmata. The protective effect can be transferred between plants by grafting. Many plant viruses have evolved elaborate mechanisms to suppress this response. RNA interference evolved early in eukaryotes, and the system is widespread. It is important in innate immunity towards viruses in some insects, but relatively little is known about its role in mammals. Research is ongoing into the application of RNA interference to antiviral treatments.

Selected outbreak

Villagers in Yambuku, Zaire, being examined by staff from the US CDC

The 1976 Zaire Ebola virus outbreak was one of the first two recorded outbreaks of the disease. The causative agent was identified as a novel virus, named for the region's Ebola River. The first identified case, in August, worked in the school in Yambuku, a small rural village in Mongala District, north Zaire. He had been treated for suspected malaria at the Yambuku Mission Hospital, which is now thought to have spread the virus by giving vitamin injections with inadequately sterilised needles, particularly to women attending prenatal clinics. Unsafe burial practices also spread the virus.

The outbreak was contained by quarantining local villages, sterilising medical equipment and providing protective clothing to medical personnel, and was over by early November. A total of 318 cases was recorded, of whom 280 died, an 88% case fatality rate. An earlier outbreak in June–November in Nzara, Sudan, was initially thought to be linked, but was shown to have been caused by a different species of Ebola virus.

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Recommended articles

Viruses & Subviral agents: bat virome • elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus • HIV • introduction to viruses Featured article • Playa de Oro virus • poliovirus • prion • rotavirus Featured article • virus Featured article

Diseases: colony collapse disorder • common cold • croup • dengue fever Featured article • gastroenteritis • Guillain–Barré syndrome • hepatitis B • hepatitis C • hepatitis E • herpes simplex • HIV/AIDS • influenza Featured article • meningitis Featured article • myxomatosis • polio Featured article • pneumonia • shingles • smallpox

Epidemiology & Interventions: 2007 Bernard Matthews H5N1 outbreak • Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations • Disease X • 2009 flu pandemic • HIV/AIDS in Malawi • polio vaccine • Spanish flu • West African Ebola virus epidemic

Virus–Host interactions: antibody • host • immune system Featured article • parasitism • RNA interference Featured article

Methodology: metagenomics

Social & Media: And the Band Played On • Contagion • "Flu Season" • Frank's Cock Featured article • Race Against Time: Searching for Hope in AIDS-Ravaged Africa Featured article • social history of viruses Featured article • " Steve Burdick" • "The Time Is Now" • " What Lies Below"

People: Brownie Mary • Macfarlane Burnet Featured article • Bobbi Campbell • Aniru Conteh • people with hepatitis C Featured article • HIV-positive people Featured article • Bette Korber • Henrietta Lacks • Linda Laubenstein • Barbara McClintock Featured article • poliomyelitis survivors Featured article • Joseph Sonnabend • Eli Todd • Ryan White Featured article

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 around 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, but is almost symptomless in some host species. 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?

HMAT Boonah

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

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

Ball-and-stick model of nevirapine

Nevirapine (also Viramune) is an antiretroviral drug used in the treatment of HIV/ AIDS caused by HIV-1. It was the first non-nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitor to be licensed, which occurred in 1996. Like nucleoside inhibitors, nevirapine inhibits HIV's reverse transcriptase enzyme, which copies the viral RNA into DNA and is essential for its replication. Unlike nucleoside inhibitors, it binds not in the enzyme's active site but in a nearby hydrophobic pocket, causing a conformational change in the enzyme that prevents it from functioning. Mutations in the pocket generate resistance to nevirapine, which develops rapidly unless viral replication is completely suppressed. The drug is therefore only used together with other anti-HIV drugs in combination therapy. The HIV-2 reverse transcriptase has a different pocket structure, rendering it inherently resistant to nevirapine and other first-generation NNRTIs. A single dose of nevirapine is a cost-effective way to reduce mother-to-child transmission of HIV, and has been recommended by the World Health Organization for use in resource-poor settings. Other protocols are recommended in the United States. Rash is the most common adverse event associated with the drug.

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