Are Viruses Alive?
Although viruses challenge our concept of what "living" means, they are vital members of the web of life
By Luis P. Villarreal
Editor's Note: This story was originally published in the December 2004 issue of Scientific American.
In an episode of the classic 1950s television comedy The Honeymooners, Brooklyn bus driver Ralph Kramden loudly explains to his wife, Alice, “You know that I know how easy you get the virus.” Half a century ago even regular folks like the Kramdens had some knowledge of viruses—as microscopic bringers of disease. Yet it is almost certain that they did not know exactly what a virus was. They were, and are, not alone.
For about 100 years, the scientific community has repeatedly changed its collective mind over what viruses are. First seen as poisons, then as life-forms, then biological chemicals, viruses today are thought of as being in a gray area between living and nonliving: they cannot replicate on their own but can do so in truly living cells and can also affect the behavior of their hosts profoundly. The categorization of viruses as nonliving during much of the modern era of biological science has had an unintended consequence: it has led most researchers to ignore viruses in the study of evolution. Finally, however, scientists are beginning to appreciate viruses as fundamental players in the history of life.
Coming to Terms
It is easy to see why viruses have been difficult to pigeonhole. They seem to vary with each lens applied to examine them. The initial interest in viruses stemmed from their association with diseases—the word “virus” has its roots in the Latin term for “poison.” In the late 19th century researchers realized that certain diseases, including rabies and foot-and-mouth, were caused by particles that seemed to behave like bacteria but were much smaller. Because they were clearly biological themselves and could be spread from one victim to another with obvious biological effects,...