Click for more "Microbes After Hours" videos
When is a life form not a life form? When it's a virus.
Viruses are strange things that straddle the fence between living and non-living. On the one hand, if they're floating around in the air or sitting on a doorknob, they're inert. They're about as alive as a rock. But if they come into contact with a suitable plant, animal or bacterial cell, they spring into action. They infect and take over the cell like pirates hijacking a ship.
Viruses are found on or in just about every material and environment on Earth from soil to water to air. They're basically found anywhere there are cells to infect. Viruses have evolved to infect every form of life, from animal to plant and from fungi to bacteria.
However, viruses tend to be somewhat picky about what type of cells they infect. Plant viruses are not equipped to infect animal cells, for example, though a certain plant virus could infect a number of related plants. Sometimes, a virus may infect one creature and do no harm, but cause havoc when it gets into a different but closely enough related creature.
A virus is basically a tiny bundle of genetic material—either DNA or RNA—carried in a shell called the viral coat, or capsid, which is made up of bits of protein called capsomeres. Some viruses have an additional layer around this coat called an envelope. That's basically all there is to viruses.
Viruses exist for one purpose only: to reproduce. To do that, they have to take over the reproductive machinery of suitable host cells.
Upon landing on an appropriate host cell, a virus gets its genetic material inside the cell either by tricking the host cell to pull it inside, like it would a nutrient molecule, or by fusing its viral coat with the host cell wall or membrane and releasing its genes inside. Some viruses inject their genes into the host cell, leaving their empty viral coats sitting outside.
Viruses may be referred to often as the smallest infectious things. But there are some smaller contenders. Some of the agents of plant disease lack even a viral coat and are merely small strings of plain, or "naked," RNA. These particles are called viroids. They are believed to be a more primitive version of ordinary viruses.
This can sometimes create a happy outcome. For example, the soil-dwelling bacterium Bacillus subtilis has viral genes that help protect it from heavy metals and other harmful substances in the soil.
Once inside a host cell, viruses take over its machinery to reproduce. Viruses override the host cell’s normal functioning with their own set of instructions that shut down production of host proteins and direct the cell to produce viral proteins to make new virus particles.