History of Viruses

No one knows exactly when viruses emerged or from where they came, since viruses do not leave historical footprints such as fossils. Modern viruses are thought to be a mosaic of bits and pieces of nucleic acids picked up from various sources along their respective evolutionary paths. Viruses are acellular, parasitic entities that are not classified within any kingdom. Unlike most living organisms, viruses are not cells and cannot divide. Instead, they infect a host cell and use the host’s replication processes to produce identical progeny virus particles. Viruses infect organisms as diverse as bacteria, plants, and animals. They exist in a netherworld between a living organism and a nonliving entity. Living things grow, metabolize, and reproduce. Viruses replicate, but to do so, they are entirely dependent on their host cells. They do not metabolize or grow, but are assembled in their mature form.

The left electron micrograph shows the tobacco mosaic virus, which is shaped like a long, thin rectangle. The right photo shows an orchid leaf in varying states of decay. Initial symptoms are yellow and brown spots. Eventually, the entire leaf turns yellow with brown blotches, then completely brown.

Figure 1. The tobacco mosaic virus (left), seen here by transmission electron microscopy, was the first virus to be discovered. The virus causes disease in tobacco and other plants, such as the orchid (right). (credit a: USDA ARS; credit b: modification of work by USDA Forest Service, Department of Plant Pathology Archive North Carolina State University; scale-bar data from Matt Russell)

Discovery and Detection

Viruses were first discovered after the development of a porcelain filter, called the Chamberland-Pasteur filter, which could remove all bacteria visible in the microscope from any liquid sample. In 1886, Adolph Meyer demonstrated that a disease of tobacco plants, tobacco mosaic disease, could be transferred from a diseased plant to a healthy one via liquid plant extracts. In 1892, Dmitri Ivanowski showed that this disease could be transmitted in this way even after the Chamberland-Pasteur filter had removed all viable bacteria from the extract. Still, it was many years before it was proven that these “filterable” infectious agents were not simply very small bacteria but were a new type of very small, disease-causing particle.

Virions, single virus particles, are very small, about 20–250 nanometers in diameter. These individual virus particles are the infectious form of a virus outside the host cell. Unlike bacteria (which are about 100 times larger), we cannot see viruses with a light microscope, with the exception of some large virions of the poxvirus family. It was not until the development of the electron microscope in the late 1930s that scientists got their first good view of the structure of the tobacco mosaic virus (TMV) (Figure 1) and other viruses (Figure 2). The surface structure of virions can be observed by both scanning and transmission electron microscopy, whereas the internal structures of the virus can only be observed in images from a transmission electron microscope. The use of these technologies has allowed for the discovery of many viruses of all types of living organisms. They were initially grouped by shared morphology. Later, groups of viruses were classified by the type of nucleic acid they contained, DNA or RNA, and whether their nucleic acid was single- or double-stranded. More recently, molecular analysis of viral replicative cycles has further refined their classification.

Micrograph a shows a virus with a hexagonal head that stands on thin, bent legs. The virus sits on the surface of a cell that is so large that only a small fraction of its surface is visible. Micrograph b shows small bacterial cells that are about the size of the organelles in the adjacent colon cells.

Figure 2. In these transmission electron micrographs, (a) a virus is dwarfed by the bacterial cell it infects, while (b) these E. coli cells are dwarfed by cultured colon cells. (credit a: modification of work by U.S. Dept. of Energy, Office of Science, LBL, PBD; credit b: modification of work by J.P. Nataro and S. Sears, unpub. data, CDC; scale-bar data from Matt Russell)

Evolution of Viruses

Although biologists have accumulated a significant amount of knowledge about how present-day viruses evolve, much less is known about how viruses originated in the first place. When exploring the evolutionary history of most organisms, scientists can look at fossil records and similar historic evidence. However, viruses do not fossilize, so researchers can only hypothesize about viruses’ evolutionary history by investigating how today’s viruses evolve and by using biochemical and genetic information to create speculative virus histories.

While most findings agree that viruses don’t have a single common ancestor, scholars have yet to find a single hypothesis about virus origins that is fully accepted in the field—and that fully explains viruses and their characteristics. There are, however, three hypotheses that have risen as the most accepted:

  • Devolution or regressive hypothesis. This hypothesis proposes to explain the origin of viruses by suggesting that viruses evolved from free-living cells. However, many components of how this process might have occurred are a mystery.
  • Escapist or progressive hypothesis. This hypothesis accounts for viruses having either an RNA or a DNA genome and suggests that viruses originated from RNA and DNA molecules that escaped from a host cell. However, this hypothesis doesn’t explain the complex capsids and other structures on virus particles.
  • Self-replication hypothesis. This hypothesis posits a system of self-replication similar to that of other self-replicating molecules, likely evolving alongside the cells they rely on as hosts; studies of some plant pathogens support this hypothesis.

Another problem for those studying viral origins and evolution is their high rate of mutation, particularly the case in RNA retroviruses like HIV/AIDS.

As technology advances, scientists will develop and refine further hypotheses to explain the origin of viruses—or create new hypotheses. The emerging field called virus molecular systematics attempts to do just that through comparisons of sequenced genetic material. These researchers hope to one day better understand the origin of viruses, a discovery that could lead to advances in the treatments for the ailments they produce.