MadSci Network: Virology

Re: how do viruses move, reproduce, and are they harmful or helpful?

Date: Fri Jul 30 10:06:35 2004
Posted By: Dean Cliver, Faculty, Food Safety Unit, Uiversity of California, Davis
Area of science: Virology
ID: 1081652117.Vi

Dear Maribel:

	Viruses must be very successful because they seem to be everywhere.  
There are kinds of viruses that infect people and other animals, viruses that
infect plants, and viruses that infect bacteria (which they can do because
viruses are much smaller than bacteria).  Animals, plants, or bacteria that
are infected with viruses are called “hosts.”  Being infected with a virus
almost never does the host any good, but some viruses cause mild
infections, whereas others are deadly.  I will concentrate on the kinds of
viruses that infect people and other animals.
	Viruses don’t have any way to swim, fly, or walk.  They ride along with
fluids, like water or the droplets of a cough or sneeze.  Our bodies are
made up of cells, which have a membrane on their outsides.  Viruses attach
to places on cell membranes that are called “receptors.”  Most viruses are
very choosy about the receptors they will attach to — in many cases,
viruses that infect animals won’t infect people, and vice versa. 
Furthermore, viruses that cause colds or influenza seldom infect our
intestines, and viruses that cause vomiting and diarrhea seldom infect our
sinuses or lungs.  This is largely controlled by which cells have receptors
for the virus.  Viruses that cause colds and influenza are shed as droplets
in sneezes and coughs, whereas viruses that cause diarrhea are shed in
feces.  The droplets travel through the air to other people and cause new
infections; the viruses in feces travel from person to person in
contaminated water or food, or on unwashed hands.  A very few viruses are
transmitted by sexual contact (for example, the AIDS virus), or even by
kissing (some herpesviruses).
	When a virus is inhaled or swallowed, it rides along with whatever it is
in until it contacts the receptor on a cell that it likes.  When the virus
contacts the right receptor, the cell “engulfs” the virus particle (sort of
slurps it in).  The virus loses its outside coat when it gets into the
cell, and the genetic material (RNA or DNA, depending on the type of virus)
inside the virus gets out into the cell.  This genetic material takes over
the cell, making the cell stop whatever it is doing and make virus.  One
part of the cell makes more virus RNA or DNA, and another part makes the
coat of the virus.  These parts get put together to make new virus, almost
like an assembly line in a factory.  An infected cell may make hundreds or
thousands of new viruses, which then either leak out of the cell or burst
it.  The new virus particles infect other cells in the host, while some get
out to “look for” another host.  If enough cells get infected and stop what
they ought to be doing for the host, the host gets sick.  The kind of
sickness depends on which cells the virus has killed.  Viruses only
multiply in infected cells, not in the environment.
	People (and other hosts) have their own defenses.  Some defenses work 
for short periods against almost all viruses, and others can protect us against
ever being infected with the same virus again.  Long-term protection comes
from proteins our bodies make that are called “antibodies.”  Kids get
vaccinated against a lot of diseases that used to kill many children; many
of these diseases were caused by viruses.  If we have been vaccinated
against measles, mumps, and other such diseases, the viruses that cause
them, if they get into our bodies, are stopped by the antibodies that are
waiting to protect us.  Another way to prevent virus infections is by
sanitation — cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze, wash your hands
thoroughly after using the bathroom and before eating.
	There is one more kind of viruses that I should mention: those that are
transmitted by bites.  Some come from mosquito bites, after the mosquito
has bitten an infected person or other animal.  We are reading a lot about
West Nile virus, which is transmitted this way.  Another, very different
virus that is transmitted by bites is rabies.  Infected dogs or other
animals (bats, skunks, raccoons, etc) sometimes bite people and transmit
the virus infection.  In this case, it is important that the person who was
bitten get vaccinated quickly; otherwise, the rabies virus infection is
likely to lead to a very terrible death.  
	Fortunately, not very many virus diseases are transmitted from animals 
to people or from people to animals, but influenza sometimes goes this route.
 Viruses that infect plants or bacteria don’t seem to infect people.
	Virus particles are too small even to see with a microscope that lets us
look at bacteria.  Still, viruses are powerful and can cause serious
illnesses or death.  There aren’t enough vaccines to protect us against all
of the kinds of viruses that threaten us, so we have to protect ourselves
as much as we can by sanitation.  Remember to wash your hands!

Dean O. Cliver

Current Queue | Current Queue for Virology | Virology archives

Try the links in the MadSci Library for more information on Virology.

MadSci Home | Information | Search | Random Knowledge Generator | MadSci Archives | Mad Library | MAD Labs | MAD FAQs | Ask a ? | Join Us! | Help Support MadSci

MadSci Network,
© 1995-2003. All rights reserved.