Viral Evolution, Morphology, and Classification

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) () and other viruses (Figure). 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.
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)
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