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Viruses are the smallest infectious agents (ranging from about 20 to 300 nm in diameter) and contain only one kind of nucleic acid (RNA or DNA) as their genome. The nucleic acid is encased in a protein shell, which may be surrounded by a lipid-containing membrane. The entire infectious unit is termed a virion. Viruses are parasites at the genetic level, replicating only in living cells and are inert in the extracellular environment. The viral nucleic acid contains information necessary to cause the infected host cell to synthesize virus-specific macromolecules required for the production of viral progeny. During the replicative cycle, numerous copies of viral nucleic acid and coat proteins are produced. The coat proteins assemble together to form the capsid, which encases and stabilizes the viral nucleic acid against the extracellular environment and facilitates the attachment and penetration by the virus upon contact with new susceptible cells. The virus infection may have little or no effect on the host cell or may result in cell damage or death.

The spectrum of viruses is rich in diversity. Viruses vary greatly in structure, genome organization and expression, and strategies of replication and transmission. The host range for a given virus may be broad or extremely limited. Viruses are known to infect unicellular organisms, such as mycoplasmas, bacteria, and algae, and all higher plants and animals. General effects of viral infection on the host are considered in Chapter 30.

Much information on virus–host relationships has been obtained from studies on bacteriophages, the viruses that attack bacteria. This subject is discussed in Chapter 7. Properties of individual viruses are discussed in Chapters 3144.


Schematic diagrams of viruses with icosahedral and helical symmetry are shown in Figure 29-1. Indicated viral components are described below.


Schematic diagram illustrating the components of the complete virus particle (the virion). A: Enveloped virus with icosahedral symmetry. Not all icosahedral viruses have envelopes. B: Virus with helical symmetry.

Capsid: The protein shell, or coat, that encloses the nucleic acid genome.

Capsomeres: Morphologic units seen in the electron microscope on the surface of icosahedral virus particles. Capsomeres represent clusters of polypeptides, but the morphologic units do not necessarily correspond to the chemically defined structural units.

Defective virus: A virus particle that is functionally deficient in some aspect of replication.

Envelope: A lipid-containing membrane that surrounds some virus particles. It is acquired during viral maturation by a budding process through a cellular membrane (see Figure 29-3). Virus-encoded glycoproteins are exposed on the surface of the envelope. These projections are called peplomers.

Nucleocapsid: The protein–nucleic acid complex representing the packaged form of the viral genome. ...

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