Despite their small size, which prevented them from being seen with light microscopes, the discovery of a filterable component smaller than a bacterium that causes tobacco mosaic disease (TMD) dates back to 1892. At that time, Dmitri Ivanovski, a Russian botanist, discovered the source of TMD by using a porcelain filtering device first invented by Charles Chamberland and Louis Pasteur in Paris in 1884. Porcelain Chamberland filters have a pore size of 0.1 µm, which is small enough to remove all bacteria ≥0.2 µm from any liquids passed through the device. An extract obtained from TMD-infected tobacco plants was made to determine the cause of the disease. Initially, the source of the disease was thought to be bacterial. It was surprising to everyone when Ivanovski, using a Chamberland filter, found that the cause of TMD was not removed after passing the extract through the porcelain filter. So if a bacterium was not the cause of TMD, what could be causing the disease? Ivanovski concluded the cause of TMD must be an extremely small bacterium or bacterial spore. Other scientists, including Martinus Beijerinck, continued investigating the cause of TMD. It was Beijerinck, in 1899, who eventually concluded the causative agent was not a bacterium but, instead, possibly a chemical, like a biological poison we would describe today as a toxin. As a result, the word virus, Latin for poison, was used to describe the cause of TMD a few years after Ivanovski’s initial discovery. Even though he was not able to see the virus that caused TMD, and did not realize the cause was not a bacterium, Ivanovski is credited as the original discoverer of viruses and a founder of the field of virology.

Today, we can see viruses using electron microscopes (Figure 6.2) and we know much more about them. Viruses are distinct biological entities; however, their evolutionary origin is still a matter of speculation. In terms of taxonomy, they are not included in the tree of life because they are acellular (not consisting of cells). In order to survive and reproduce, viruses must infect a cellular host, making them obligate intracellular parasites. The genome of a virus enters a host cell and directs the production of the viral components, proteins and nucleic acids, needed to form new virus particles called virions. New virions are made in the host cell by assembly of viral components. The new virions transport the viral genome to another host cell to carry out another round of infection. Table 6.1 summarizes the properties of viruses.

Characteristics of Viruses
Infectious, acellular pathogens
Obligate intracellular parasites with host and cell-type specificity
DNA or RNA genome (never both)
Genome is surrounded by a protein capsid and, in some cases, a phospholipid membrane studded with viral glycoproteins
Lack genes for many products needed for successful reproduction, requiring exploitation of host-cell genomes to reproduce
Table 6.1




Figure 6.2 (a) Tobacco mosaic virus (TMV) viewed with transmission electron microscope. (b) Plants infected with tobacco mosaic disease (TMD), caused by TMV. (credit a: modification of work by USDA Agricultural Research Service—scale-bar data from Matt Russell; credit b: modification of work by USDA Forest Service, Department of Plant Pathology Archive North Carolina State University)

Hosts and Viral Transmission

Viruses can infect every type of host cell, including those of plants, animals, fungi, protists, bacteria, and archaea. Most viruses will only be able to infect the cells of one or a few species of organism. This is called the host range. However, having a wide host range is not common and viruses will typically only infect specific hosts and only specific cell types within those hosts. The viruses that infect bacteria are called bacteriophages, or simply phages. The word phage comes from the Greek word for devour. Other viruses are just identified by their host group, such as animal or plant viruses. Once a cell is infected, the effects of the virus can vary depending on the type of virus. Viruses may cause abnormal growth of the cell or cell death, alter the cell’s genome, or cause little noticeable effect in the cell.

Viruses can be transmitted through direct contact, indirect contact with fomites, or through a vector: an animal that transmits a pathogen from one host to another. Arthropods such as mosquitoes, ticks, and flies, are typical vectors for viral diseases, and they may act as mechanical vectors or biological vectors. Mechanical transmission occurs when the arthropod carries a viral pathogen on the outside of its body and transmits it to a new host by physical contact. Biological transmission occurs when the arthropod carries the viral pathogen inside its body and transmits it to the new host through biting.

In humans, a wide variety of viruses are capable of causing various infections and diseases. Some of the deadliest emerging pathogens in humans are viruses, yet we have few treatments or drugs to deal with viral infections, making them difficult to eradicate.

Viruses that can be transmitted from an animal host to a human host can cause zoonoses. For example, the avian influenza virus originates in birds, but can cause disease in humans. Reverse zoonoses are caused by infection of an animal by a virus that originated in a human.




Micro Connections

Fighting Bacteria with Viruses

The emergence of superbugs, or multidrug resistant bacteria, has become a major challenge for pharmaceutical companies and a serious health-care problem. According to a 2013 report by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 2 million people are infected with drug-resistant bacteria in the US annually, resulting in at least 23,000 deaths. The continued use and overuse of antibiotics will likely lead to the evolution of even more drug-resistant strains.

One potential solution is the use of phage therapy, a procedure that uses bacteria-killing viruses (bacteriophages) to treat bacterial infections. Phage therapy is not a new idea. The discovery of bacteriophages dates back to the early 20th century, and phage therapy was first used in Europe in 1915 by the English bacteriologist Frederick Twort. However, the subsequent discovery of penicillin and other antibiotics led to the near abandonment of this form of therapy, except in the former Soviet Union and a few countries in Eastern Europe. Interest in phage therapy outside of the countries of the former Soviet Union is only recently re-emerging because of the rise in antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Phage therapy has some advantages over antibiotics in that phages kill only one specific bacterium, whereas antibiotics kill not only the pathogen but also beneficial bacteria of the normal microbiota. Development of new antibiotics is also expensive for drug companies and for patients, especially for those who live in countries with high poverty rates.

Phages have also been used to prevent food spoilage. In 2006, the US Food and Drug Administration approved the use of a solution containing six bacteriophages that can be sprayed on lunch meats such as bologna, ham, and turkey to kill Listeria monocytogenes, a bacterium responsible for listeriosis, a form of food poisoning. Some consumers have concerns about the use of phages on foods, however, especially given the rising popularity of organic products. Foods that have been treated with phages must declare “bacteriophage preparation” in the list of ingredients or include a label declaring that the meat has been “treated with antimicrobial solution to reduce microorganisms.”

Viral Structures

In general, virions (viral particles) are small and cannot be observed using a regular light microscope. They are much smaller than prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells; this is an adaptation allowing viruses to infect these larger cells (see Figure 6.3). The size of a virion can range from 20 nm for small viruses up to 900 nm for typical, large viruses (see Figure 6.4). Recent discoveries, however, have identified new giant viral species, such as Pandoravirus salinus and Pithovirus sibericum, with sizes approaching that of a bacterial cell.


Figure 6.3 (a) In this transmission electron micrograph, a bacteriophage (a virus that infects bacteria) is dwarfed by the bacterial cell it infects. (b) An illustration of the bacteriophage in the micrograph. (credit a: modification of work by U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Science, LBL, PBD)
Figure 6.4 The size of a virus is small relative to the size of most bacterial and eukaryotic cells and their organelles.


In 1935, after the development of the electron microscope, Wendell Stanley was the first scientist to crystallize the structure of the tobacco mosaic virus and discovered that it is composed of RNA and protein. In 1943, he isolated Influenza B virus, which contributed to the development of an influenza (flu) vaccine. Stanley’s discoveries unlocked the mystery of the nature of viruses that had been puzzling scientists for over 40 years and his contributions to the field of virology led to him being awarded the Nobel Prize in 1946.

As a result of continuing research into the nature of viruses, we now know they consist of a nucleic acid (either RNA or DNA, but never both) surrounded by a protein coat called a capsid (see Figure 6.5). The interior of the capsid is not filled with cytosol, as in a cell, but instead it contains the bare necessities in terms of genome and enzymes needed to direct the synthesis of new virions. Each capsid is composed of protein subunits called capsomeres made of one or more different types of capsomere proteins that interlock to form the closely packed capsid.

There are two categories of viruses based on general composition. Viruses formed from only a nucleic acid and capsid are called naked viruses or nonenveloped viruses. Viruses formed with a nucleic-acid packed capsid surrounded by a lipid layer are called enveloped viruses (see Figure 6.5). The viral envelope is a small portion of phospholipid membrane obtained as the virion buds from a host cell. The viral envelope may either be intracellular or cytoplasmic in origin.

Extending outward and away from the capsid on some naked viruses and enveloped viruses are protein structures called spikes. At the tips of these spikes are structures that allow the virus to attach and enter a cell, like the influenza virus hemagglutinin spikes (H) or enzymes like the neuraminidase (N) influenza virus spikes that allow the virus to detach from the cell surface during release of new virions. Influenza viruses are often identified by their H and N spikes. For example, H1N1 influenza viruses were responsible for the pandemics in 1918 and 2009, H2N2 for the pandemic in 1957, and H3N2 for the pandemic in 1968.

Figure 6.5 (a) The naked atadenovirus uses spikes made of glycoproteins from its capsid to bind to host cells. (b) The enveloped human immunodeficiency virus uses spikes made of glycoproteins embedded in its envelope to bind to host cells (credit a “micrograph”: modification of work by NIAID; credit b “micrograph”: modification of work by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)


Viruses vary in the shape of their capsids, which can be either helicalpolyhedral, or complex. A helical capsid forms the shape of tobacco mosaic virus (TMV), a naked helical virus, and Ebola virus, an enveloped helical virus. The capsid is cylindrical or rod shaped, with the genome fitting just inside the length of the capsid. Polyhedral capsids form the shapes of poliovirus and rhinovirus, and consist of a nucleic acid surrounded by a polyhedral (many-sided) capsid in the form of an icosahedron. An icosahedral capsid is a three-dimensional, 20-sided structure with 12 vertices. These capsids somewhat resemble a soccer ball. Both helical and polyhedral viruses can have envelopes. Viral shapes seen in certain types of bacteriophages, such as T4 phage, and poxviruses, like vaccinia virus, may have features of both polyhedral and helical viruses so they are described as a complex viral shape (see Figure 6.6). In the bacteriophage complex form, the genome is located within the polyhedral head and the sheath connects the head to the tail fibers and tail pins that help the virus attach to receptors on the host cell’s surface. Poxviruses that have complex shapes are often brick shaped, with intricate surface characteristics not seen in the other categories of capsid.

Figure 6.6 Viral capsids can be (a) helical, (b) polyhedral, or (c) have a complex shape. (credit a “micrograph”: modification of work by USDA ARS; credit b “micrograph”: modification of work by U.S. Department of Energy)

Classification and Taxonomy of Viruses

Although viruses are not classified in the three domains of life, their numbers are great enough to require classification. Since 1971, the International Union of Microbiological Societies Virology Division has given the task of developing, refining, and maintaining a universal virus taxonomy to the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV). Since viruses can mutate so quickly, it can be difficult to classify them into a genus and a species epithet using the binomial nomenclature system. Thus, the ICTV’s viral nomenclature system classifies viruses into families and genera based on viral genetics, chemistry, morphology, and mechanism of multiplication. To date, the ICTV has classified known viruses in seven orders, 96 families, and 350 genera. Viral family names end in –viridae (e.g, Parvoviridae) and genus names end in −virus (e.g., Parvovirus). The names of viral orders, families, and genera are all italicized. When referring to a viral species, we often use a genus and species epithet such as Pandoravirus dulcis or Pandoravirus salinus.

The Baltimore classification system is an alternative to ICTV nomenclature. The Baltimore system classifies viruses according to their genomes (DNA or RNA, single versus double stranded, and mode of replication). This system thus creates seven groups of viruses that have common genetics and biology.

Aside from formal systems of nomenclature, viruses are often informally grouped into categories based on chemistry, morphology, or other characteristics they share in common. Categories may include naked or enveloped structure, single-stranded (ss) or double-stranded (ds) DNA or ss or ds RNA genomes, segmented or nonsegmented genomes, and positive-strand (+) or negative-strand (−) RNA. For example, herpes viruses can be classified as a dsDNA enveloped virus; human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a +ssRNA enveloped virus, and tobacco mosaic virus is a +ssRNA virus. Other characteristics such as host specificity, tissue specificity, capsid shape, and special genes or enzymes may also be used to describe groups of similar viruses. Table 6.2 lists some of the most common viruses that are human pathogens by genome type.

Common Pathogenic Viruses
Genome Family Example Virus Clinical Features
dsDNA, enveloped Poxviridae Orthopoxvirus Skin papules, pustules, lesions
Poxviridae Parapoxvirus Skin lesions
Herpesviridae Simplexvirus Cold sores, genital herpes, sexually transmitted disease
dsDNA, naked Adenoviridae Atadenovirus Respiratory infection (common cold)
Papillomaviridae Papillomavirus Genital warts, cervical, vulvar, or vaginal cancer
Reoviridae Reovirus Gastroenteritis severe diarrhea (stomach flu)
ssDNA, naked Parvoviridae Adeno-associated dependoparvovirus A Respiratory tract infection
Parvoviridae Adeno-associated dependoparvovirus B Respiratory tract infection
dsRNA, naked Reoviridae Rotavirus Gastroenteritis
+ssRNA, naked Picornaviridae Enterovirus C Poliomyelitis
Picornaviridae Rhinovirus Upper respiratory tract infection (common cold)
Picornaviridae Hepatovirus Hepatitis
+ssRNA, enveloped Togaviridae Alphavirus Encephalitis, hemorrhagic fever
Togaviridae Rubivirus Rubella
Retroviridae Lentivirus Acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS)
−ssRNA, enveloped Filoviridae Zaire Ebolavirus Hemorrhagic fever
Orthomyxoviridae Influenzavirus A, B, C Flu
Rhabdoviridae Lyssavirus Rabies
Table 6.2

Classification of Viral Diseases

While the ICTV has been tasked with the biological classification of viruses, it has also played an important role in the classification of diseases caused by viruses. To facilitate the tracking of virus-related human diseases, the ICTV has created classifications that link to the International Classification of Diseases (ICD), the standard taxonomy of disease that is maintained and updated by the World Health Organization (WHO). The ICD assigns an alphanumeric code of up to six characters to every type of viral infection, as well as all other types of diseases, medical conditions, and causes of death. This ICD code is used in conjunction with two other coding systems (the Current Procedural Terminology, and the Healthcare Common Procedure Coding System) to categorize patient conditions for treatment and insurance reimbursement.

For example, when a patient seeks treatment for a viral infection, ICD codes are routinely used by clinicians to order laboratory tests and prescribe treatments specific to the virus suspected of causing the illness. This ICD code is then used by medical laboratories to identify tests that must be performed to confirm the diagnosis. The ICD code is used by the health-care management system to verify that all treatments and laboratory work performed are appropriate for the given virus. Medical coders use ICD codes to assign the proper code for procedures performed, and medical billers, in turn, use this information to process claims for reimbursement by insurance companies. Vital-records keepers use ICD codes to record cause of death on death certificates, and epidemiologists used ICD codes to calculate morbidity and mortality statistics.


All viruses depend on cells for reproduction and metabolic processes. By themselves, viruses do not encode for all of the enzymes necessary for viral replication. But within a host cell, a virus can commandeer cellular machinery to produce more viral particles. Bacteriophages replicate only in the cytoplasm, since prokaryotic cells do not have a nucleus or organelles. In eukaryotic cells, most DNA viruses can replicate inside the nucleus, with an exception observed in the large DNA viruses, such as the poxviruses, that can replicate in the cytoplasm. With a few exceptions, RNA viruses that infect animal cells replicate in the cytoplasm. An important exception that will be highlighted later is Influenza virus.

The Life Cycle of Viruses with Prokaryote Hosts

The life cycle of bacteriophages has been a good model for understanding how viruses affect the cells they infect, since similar processes have been observed for eukaryotic viruses, which can cause immediate death of the cell or establish a latent or chronic infection. Virulent phages typically lead to the death of the cell through cell lysis. Temperate phages, on the other hand, can become part of a host chromosome and are replicated with the cell genome until such time as they are induced to make newly assembled viruses, or progeny viruses.

The Lytic Cycle

During the lytic cycle of virulent phage, the bacteriophage takes over the cell, reproduces new phages, and destroys the cell. T-even phage is a good example of a well-characterized class of virulent phages. There are five stages in the bacteriophage lytic cycle (see Figure 6.7). Attachment is the first stage in the infection process in which the phage interacts with specific bacterial surface receptors (e.g., lipopolysaccharides and OmpC protein on host surfaces). Most phages have a narrow host range and may infect one species of bacteria or one strain within a species. This unique recognition can be exploited for targeted treatment of bacterial infection by phage therapy or for phage typing to identify unique bacterial subspecies or strains. The second stage of infection is entry or penetration. This occurs through contraction of the tail sheath, which acts like a hypodermic needle to inject the viral genome through the cell wall and membrane. The phage head and remaining components remain outside the bacteria.

Figure 6.7 A virulent phage shows only the lytic cycle pictured here. In the lytic cycle, the phage replicates and lyses the host cell.


The third stage of infection is biosynthesis of new viral components. After entering the host cell, the virus synthesizes virus-encoded endonucleases to degrade the bacterial chromosome. It then hijacks the host cell to replicate, transcribe, and translate the necessary viral components (capsomeres, sheath, base plates, tail fibers, and viral enzymes) for the assembly of new viruses. Polymerase genes are usually expressed early in the cycle, while capsid and tail proteins are expressed later. During the maturation phase, new virions are created. To liberate free phages, the bacterial cell wall is disrupted by phage proteins such as holin or lysozyme. The final stage is release. Mature viruses burst out of the host cell in a process called lysis and the progeny viruses are liberated into the environment to infect new cells.

The Lysogenic Cycle

In a lysogenic cycle, the phage genome also enters the cell through attachment and penetration. A prime example of a phage with this type of life cycle is the lambda phage. During the lysogenic cycle, instead of killing the host, the phage genome integrates into the bacterial chromosome and becomes part of the host. The integrated phage genome is called a prophage. A bacterial host with a prophage is called a lysogen. The process in which a bacterium is infected by a temperate phage is called lysogeny. It is typical of temperate phages to be latent or inactive within the cell. As the bacterium replicates its chromosome, it also replicates the phage’s DNA and passes it on to new daughter cells during reproduction. The presence of the phage may alter the phenotype of the bacterium, since it can bring in extra genes (e.g., toxin genes that can increase bacterial virulence). This change in the host phenotype is called lysogenic conversion or phage conversion. Some bacteria, such as Vibrio cholerae and Clostridium botulinum, are less virulent in the absence of the prophage. The phages infecting these bacteria carry the toxin genes in their genome and enhance the virulence of the host when the toxin genes are expressed. In the case of V. cholera, phage encoded toxin can cause severe diarrhea; in C. botulinum, the toxin can cause paralysis. During lysogeny, the prophage will persist in the host chromosome until induction, which results in the excision of the viral genome from the host chromosome. After induction has occurred the temperate phage can proceed through a lytic cycle and then undergo lysogeny in a newly infected cell (see Figure 6.8).

Figure 6.8 A temperate bacteriophage has both lytic and lysogenic cycles. In the lysogenic cycle, phage DNA is incorporated into the host genome, forming a prophage, which is passed on to subsequent generations of cells. Environmental stressors such as starvation or exposure to toxic chemicals may cause the prophage to be excised and enter the lytic cycle.


Transduction occurs when a bacteriophage transfers bacterial DNA from one bacterium to another during sequential infections. There are two types of transduction: generalized and specialized transduction. During the lytic cycle of viral replication, the virus hijacks the host cell, degrades the host chromosome, and makes more viral genomes. As it assembles and packages DNA into the phage head, packaging occasionally makes a mistake. Instead of packaging viral DNA, it takes a random piece of host DNA and inserts it into the capsid. Once released, this virion will then inject the former host’s DNA into a newly infected host. The asexual transfer of genetic information can allow for DNA recombination to occur, thus providing the new host with new genes (e.g., an antibiotic-resistance gene, or a sugar-metabolizing gene). Generalized transduction occurs when a random piece of bacterial chromosomal DNA is transferred by the phage during the lytic cycle. Specialized transduction occurs at the end of the lysogenic cycle, when the prophage is excised and the bacteriophage enters the lytic cycle. Since the phage is integrated into the host genome, the prophage can replicate as part of the host. However, some conditions (e.g., ultraviolet light exposure or chemical exposure) stimulate the prophage to undergo induction, causing the phage to excise from the genome, enter the lytic cycle, and produce new phages to leave host cells. During the process of excision from the host chromosome, a phage may occasionally remove some bacterial DNA near the site of viral integration. The phage and host DNA from one end or both ends of the integration site are packaged within the capsid and are transferred to the new, infected host. Since the DNA transferred by the phage is not randomly packaged but is instead a specific piece of DNA near the site of integration, this mechanism of gene transfer is referred to as specialized transduction (see Figure 6.9). The DNA can then recombine with host chromosome, giving the latter new characteristics. Transduction seems to play an important role in the evolutionary process of bacteria, giving them a mechanism for asexual exchange of genetic information.

Figure 6.9 This flowchart illustrates the mechanism of specialized transduction. An integrated phage excises, bringing with it a piece of the DNA adjacent to its insertion point. On reinfection of a new bacterium, the phage DNA integrates along with the genetic material acquired from the previous host.

Life Cycle of Viruses with Animal Hosts

Lytic animal viruses follow similar infection stages to bacteriophages: attachment, penetration, biosynthesis, maturation, and release (see Figure 6.10). However, the mechanisms of penetration, nucleic-acid biosynthesis, and release differ between bacterial and animal viruses. After binding to host receptors, animal viruses enter through endocytosis (engulfment by the host cell) or through membrane fusion (viral envelope with the host cell membrane). Many viruses are host specific, meaning they only infect a certain type of host; and most viruses only infect certain types of cells within tissues. This specificity is called a tissue tropism. Examples of this are demonstrated by the poliovirus, which exhibits tropism for the tissues of the brain and spinal cord, or the influenza virus, which has a primary tropism for the respiratory tract.

Figure 6.10 Influenza virus is one of the few RNA viruses that replicates in the nucleus of cells. In influenza virus infection, viral glycoproteins attach the virus to a host epithelial cell. As a result, the virus is engulfed. Viral RNA and viral proteins are made and assembled into new virions that are released by budding.

Animal viruses do not always express their genes using the normal flow of genetic information—from DNA to RNA to protein. Some viruses have a dsDNA genome like cellular organisms and can follow the normal flow. However, others may have ssDNAdsRNA, or ssRNA genomes. The nature of the genome determines how the genome is replicated and expressed as viral proteins. If a genome is ssDNA, host enzymes will be used to synthesize a second strand that is complementary to the genome strand, thus producing dsDNA. The dsDNA can now be replicated, transcribed, and translated similar to host DNA.

If the viral genome is RNA, a different mechanism must be used. There are three types of RNA genome: dsRNA, positive (+) single-strand (+ssRNA) or negative (−) single-strand RNA (−ssRNA). If a virus has a +ssRNA genome, it can be translated directly to make viral proteins. Viral genomic +ssRNA acts like cellular mRNA. However, if a virus contains a −ssRNA genome, the host ribosomes cannot translate it until the −ssRNA is replicated into +ssRNA by viral RNA-dependent RNA polymerase (RdRP) (see Figure 6.11). The RdRP is brought in by the virus and can be used to make +ssRNA from the original −ssRNA genome. The RdRP is also an important enzyme for the replication of dsRNA viruses, because it uses the negative strand of the double-stranded genome as a template to create +ssRNA. The newly synthesized +ssRNA copies can then be translated by cellular ribosomes.

Figure 6.11 RNA viruses can contain +ssRNA that can be directly read by the ribosomes to synthesize viral proteins. Viruses containing −ssRNA must first use the −ssRNA as a template for the synthesis of +ssRNA before viral proteins can be synthesized.


An alternative mechanism for viral nucleic acid synthesis is observed in the retroviruses, which are +ssRNA viruses (see Figure 6.12). Single-stranded RNA viruses such as HIV carry a special enzyme called reverse transcriptase within the capsid that synthesizes a complementary ssDNA (cDNA) copy using the +ssRNA genome as a template. The ssDNA is then made into dsDNA, which can integrate into the host chromosome and become a permanent part of the host. The integrated viral genome is called a provirus. The virus now can remain in the host for a long time to establish a chronic infection. The provirus stage is similar to the prophage stage in a bacterial infection during the lysogenic cycle. However, unlike prophage, the provirus does not undergo excision after splicing into the genome.


Figure 6.12 HIV, an enveloped, icosahedral retrovirus, attaches to a cell surface receptor of an immune cell and fuses with the cell membrane. Viral contents are released into the cell, where viral enzymes convert the single-stranded RNA genome into DNA and incorporate it into the host genome. (credit: modification of work by NIAID, NIH)

Persistent Infections

Persistent infection occurs when a virus is not completely cleared from the system of the host but stays in certain tissues or organs of the infected person. The virus may remain silent or undergo productive infection without seriously harming or killing the host. Mechanisms of persistent infection may involve the regulation of the viral or host gene expressions or the alteration of the host immune response. The two primary categories of persistent infections are latent infection and chronic infection. Examples of viruses that cause latent infections include herpes simplex virus (oral and genital herpes), varicella-zoster virus (chickenpox and shingles), and Epstein-Barr virus (mononucleosis). Hepatitis C virus and HIV are two examples of viruses that cause long-term chronic infections.

Latent Infection

Not all animal viruses undergo replication by the lytic cycle. There are viruses that are capable of remaining hidden or dormant inside the cell in a process called latency. These types of viruses are known as latent viruses and may cause latent infections. Viruses capable of latency may initially cause an acute infection before becoming dormant.

For example, the varicella-zoster virus infects many cells throughout the body and causes chickenpox, characterized by a rash of blisters covering the skin. About 10 to 12 days postinfection, the disease resolves and the virus goes dormant, living within nerve-cell ganglia for years. During this time, the virus does not kill the nerve cells or continue replicating. It is not clear why the virus stops replicating within the nerve cells and expresses few viral proteins but, in some cases, typically after many years of dormancy, the virus is reactivated and causes a new disease called shingles (Figure 6.13). Whereas chickenpox affects many areas throughout the body, shingles is a nerve cell-specific disease emerging from the ganglia in which the virus was dormant.

Figure 6.13 (a) Varicella-zoster, the virus that causes chickenpox, has an enveloped icosahedral capsid visible in this transmission electron micrograph. Its double-stranded DNA genome becomes incorporated in the host DNA. (b) After a period of latency, the virus can reactivate in the form of shingles, usually manifesting as a painful, localized rash on one side of the body. (credit a: modification of work by Erskine Palmer and B.G. Partin—scale-bar data from Matt Russell; credit b: modification of work by Rosmarie Voegtli)


Latent viruses may remain dormant by existing as circular viral genome molecules outside of the host chromosome. Others become proviruses by integrating into the host genome. During dormancy, viruses do not cause any symptoms of disease and may be difficult to detect. A patient may be unaware that he or she is carrying the virus unless a viral diagnostic test has been performed.

Chronic Infection

A chronic infection is a disease with symptoms that are recurrent or persistent over a long time. Some viral infections can be chronic if the body is unable to eliminate the virus. HIV is an example of a virus that produces a chronic infection, often after a long period of latency. Once a person becomes infected with HIV, the virus can be detected in tissues continuously thereafter, but untreated patients often experience no symptoms for years. However, the virus maintains chronic persistence through several mechanisms that interfere with immune function, including preventing expression of viral antigens on the surface of infected cells, altering immune cells themselves, restricting expression of viral genes, and rapidly changing viral antigens through mutation. Eventually, the damage to the immune system results in progression of the disease leading to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). The various mechanisms that HIV uses to avoid being cleared by the immune system are also used by other chronically infecting viruses, including the hepatitis C virus.

Viral Growth Curve

Unlike the growth curve for a bacterial population, the growth curve for a virus population over its life cycle does not follow a sigmoidal curve. During the initial stage, an inoculum of virus causes infection. In the eclipse phase, viruses bind and penetrate the cells with no virions detected in the medium. The chief difference that next appears in the viral growth curve compared to a bacterial growth curve occurs when virions are released from the lysed host cell at the same time. Such an occurrence is called a burst, and the number of virions per bacterium released is described as the burst size. In a one-step multiplication curve for bacteriophage, the host cells lyse, releasing many viral particles to the medium, which leads to a very steep rise in viral titer (the number of virions per unit volume). If no viable host cells remain, the viral particles begin to degrade during the decline of the culture (see Figure 6.14).

Figure 6.14 The one-step multiplication curve for a bacteriophage population follows three steps: 1) inoculation, during which the virions attach to host cells; 2) eclipse, during which entry of the viral genome occurs; and 3) burst, when sufficient numbers of new virions are produced and emerge from the host cell. The burst size is the maximum number of virions produced per bacterium.


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This part contains content from OpenStax College, Microbiology. OpenStax CNX. Access for free at

Chapters and sections were borrowed and adapted from the above existing OER textbook. Without these foundational texts, a lot more work would have been required to complete this project. Thank you to those who shared before us.

SA Bos, M.D.

Lead Author