• Throughout the course of modern human history, the source some viral infections such as smallpox, polio, and the Spanish flu have been quite unknown to humans. They have been diseases which have had deadly effects on humanity. All that was known about these diseases was that they spread via person-to-person contact.
  • In the second half of the1800’s, Louis Pasteur postulated that the disease rabies was caused by a “living thing” which is in all probability, smaller than bacteria itself. This postulation of his led him to develop the first vaccine against rabies in 1884. 
  • The initial discovery of the light microscope held some promise with respect to the observation of the agents causing such sever diseases however, it was found that the microscope could only be used to observe bacteria, protozoa and fungi. The size of virus was smaller than these agents and therefore, could not be observed under a microscope.
  • In the 1890’s, D. Ivanovski and M. Beijerinck showed that a disease caused in plants was cause by the tobacco mosaic virus which served as the first properly substantial revelation related to viruses.
  • This discovery was then followed by two other scientists, Friedrich Loeffler and Paul Frosch who isolated the virus that caused foot and mouth disease in cattle. 


Viruses are extremely unique entities which are capable of infecting almost every single type of cell known including bacteria, algae, fungi, plants, animals and even protozoa. 

Questions regarding the nature of viruses like their origination, their state of existence (alive or non-living), their distinct biological characteristics etc. are still very dominant in the scientific world.

Some ideas that have been addressed are:

  • Viruses are considered to be the most abundant microbes on earth, in terms of number.
  • Viruses are considered to be obligate intracellular parasites that are incapable of dividing or multiplying unless they invade a specific host cell. They multiply by taking over the hosts genetic and metabolic machinery of the cells of the host.
  • They are said to have been in existence for billions of years and have arisen from the loose strands of genetic materials released by the cells. (This is one widely accepted theory. However, it too has faced some criticism.)


  1. Viruses are obligate parasites of protozoa, bacteria, fungi, animals, plants, and algae.
  2. They have an ultramicroscopic size range from 20nm up to 450 nm in diameter.
  3. They have a very compact and economical structure. They are not cellular in nature.
  4. They are inactive macromolecules outside the host cell and only get activated inside the host cells.
  5. Viral nucleic acid can be DNA or RNA but never both together.
  6. Their basic structure consists of a protein coat (the capsid) surrounding the nucleic acid core.
  7. They lack the enzyme and machinery for basic metabolic processes and synthesis of proteins.
  8. Virus multiply by taking over the host machinery and genetic material.



  • Viruses represent the smallest infectious agents in the biological world. (with a few exceptions)
  • They lie within the ultramicroscopic size range with sizes usually less than 0.2 micrometre. They are so small that one requires an electron microscope to detect or examine their structure.
  • The animal size range may vary from parvoviruses (which are around 20 nm in diameter) to megaviruses and pandoraviruses (which are up to 1000nm in width) that may be as big as small bacteria.
  • Some viruses which are cylindrical may be relatively long (around 800nm) but have a very narrow diameter (around 15nm).
  • Negative staining using an opaque salt in combination with electron microscopy can be used for the observational studies of viruses.


Viruses have a crystalline appearance due the occurrence of regular, repeating molecules. A number of purified viruses even form large aggregates and crystals when subjected to special treatments. 

The general plan of all viruses or the general architecture is quite simple. Almost all viruses contain a protein coat or the capsid which encloses the viral genome which may be a DNA or an RNA sequence. Apart from this, viruses only contain those parts which are needed to invade and take control over the hosts cellular machinery. 

Some important terms are:

  • Capsid: The outer covering or the shell of the virus that surround the central nucleic acid core of the virus.
  • Nucleocapsid: The outer shell along with the nucleic acid core is called the nucleocapsid.
  • Naked viruses: Viruses that do not contain a nucleocapsid layer are called naked viruses.
  • Enveloped viruses: Some virus classes possess an additional covering which is external to the capsid which is called an envelope. This envelope structure is usually a piece of the hosts cell membrane. These types of viruses are called enveloped viruses.


The capsid layer of the virus, when magnified immensely, shows the appearance of small, prominent, geographic structures. These structural subunits of the capsid are called capsomeres. 

These capsomeres are capable of self-assembling into the finished capsid structure. Depending on the shape and assembly of the capsomeres, the resulting structure can be of two types; 

  1. Helical: Helical capsids have rod shaped capsomeres that bind together to form a structure similar to hollow discs (like a bracelet). During the process of formation, these discs link together to form a continuous helix.See the source image
  1. Icosahedral capsids: An icosahedron is a three-dimensional, 20-sided figure with 12 evenly spaced corners. Some viruses also show such an arrangement in this shape.
  2. Complex viruses: Such viruses may have a specific head, a neck and other structures specific for the invasion of host cells. The most common examples of such viruses is phage viruses.


Enveloped viruses, when released from the host cells sometimes carry forward a piece of the hosts cell membrane with them in the form of an envelope. Although it is derived from the host, the envelope is different in the virus because the normal proteins of the host get replaced with the viral proteins. 


At the center of the viral structure, within the capsid lies the viral genome which may be single or double stranded. The genetic material may be RNA or it may be DNA but it is never both even in viruses. The genome may be a few hundred to thousands of base pairs long. 


Foundations in Microbiology – Talaro, Kathleen P

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