A virus (from the Latin virus meaning toxin or poison) is a small infectious agent that can replicate only inside the cells of other organisms. Viruses are too small to be seen directly with a light microscope. Viruses infect all types of organisms, from animals and plants to bacteria and archaea. Since the initial discovery of tobacco mosaic virus by Martinus Beijerinck in 1898, about 5,000 viruses have been described in detail, although there are millions of different types. Viruses are found in almost every ecosystem on Earth and these minute structures are the most abundant type of biological entity. The study of viruses is known as virology, a sub-specialty of microbiology.
Unlike prions and viroids, viruses consist of two or three parts: all viruses have genes made from either DNA or RNA, long molecules that carry genetic information; all have a protein coat that protects these genes; and some have an envelope of fat that surrounds them when they are outside a cell. Viroids do not have a protein coat and prions contain no RNA or DNA. Viruses vary from simple helical and icosahedral shapes, to more complex structures. Most viruses are about one hundred times smaller than an average bacterium. The origins of viruses in the evolutionary history of life are unclear: some may have evolved from plasmidsâ€”pieces of DNA that can move between cellsâ€”while others may have evolved from bacteria. In evolution, viruses are an important means of horizontal gene transfer, which increases genetic diversity.
Viruses spread in many ways; plant viruses are often transmitted from plant to plant by insects that feed on sap, such as aphids, while animal viruses can be carried by blood-sucking insects. These disease-bearing organisms are known as vectors. Influenza viruses are spread by coughing and sneezing. The norovirus and rotaviruses, common causes of viral gastroenteritis, are transmitted by the faecal-oral route and are passed from person to person by contact, entering the body in food or water. HIV is one of several viruses transmitted through sexual contact or by exposure to infected blood.
Viral infections in animals provoke an immune response that usually eliminates the infecting virus. These immune responses can also be produced by vaccines, which give immunity to specific viral infections. However, some viruses including HIV and those causing viral hepatitis evade these immune responses and cause chronic infections. Microorganisms also have defences against viral infection, such as restriction modification systems. Antibiotics have no effect on viruses, but several antiviral drugs have been developed.