NHGRI logo

A virus is an infectious agent that occupies a place near the boundary between the living and the nonliving. It is a particle much smaller than a bacterial cell, consisting of a small genome of either DNA or RNA surrounded by a protein coat. Viruses enter host cells and hijack the enzymes and materials of the host cells to make more copies of themselves. Viruses cause a wide variety of diseases in plants and animals, including AIDS, measles, smallpox, and polio.


Viruses are submicroscopic, which means that you cannot see them in the microscope. What's interesting about viruses is that they have two or three components. Starting from the inside, you will have a nucleic acid, which can be either RNA or DNA, and in both cases the nucleic acid can be either single-stranded or double-stranded. Then surrounding the nucleic acid will be a protein coat that's in the form of capsid, or little small units that are assembled in a certain way. That is what all viruses have. Now, some viruses will also have an envelope which they obtain as they emerge from the cell. Viruses are very interesting in that they can only survive inside a living cell. So they must have a living cell in order to survive and replicate. Antibiotics are not effective against viruses, but vaccines are, as well as some antivirals.

Bettie J. Graham, Ph.D.