A virus (from the Latin noun virus, meaning toxin or poison) is a sub-microscopic particle (ranging in size from 20–300 nm) that can infect the cells of a biological organism. Viruses can replicate themselves only by infecting a host cell. They therefore cannot reproduce on their own. At the most basic level, viruses consist of genetic material contained within a protective protein coat called a capsid. They infect a wide variety of organisms: both eukaryotes (animals, plants, protists, and fungi) and prokaryotes (bacteria and archaea). A virus that infects bacteria is known as a bacteriophage, often shortened to phage. The study of viruses is known as virology and people who study viruses are known as virologists. Viruses cause several serious human diseases, such as AIDS, influenza and rabies. Therapy is difficult for viral diseases as antibiotics have no effect on viruses and few antiviral drugs are known. The best way to prevent viral diseases is with a vaccine, which produces immunity.
It has been argued extensively whether viruses are living organisms. Most virologists consider them non-living,life. They do not respond to changes in the environment, which is a trait among living organisms.as they do not meet all the criteria of the generally accepted definition of
Viral diseases such as rabies, yellow fever and smallpox have affected humans for many centuries. There is hieroglyphical evidence of polio in the ancient Egyptian empire, however, the cause of these diseases was unknown at the time. In 1717, Mary Montagu, the wife of an English ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, observed local women inoculating their children against smallpox. In the late 18th century, Edward Jenner observed and studied Miss Sarah Nelmes, a milkmaid who had previously caught cowpox and was subsequently found to be immune to smallpox, a similar, but devastating virus. Jenner developed the first vaccine based on these findings; after lengthy (but successful) vaccination campaigns the World Health Organization (WHO) certified the eradication of smallpox in 1979.
In the late 19th century Charles Chamberland developed a porcelain filter with pores small enough to filter viruses, yet retain all viable bacteria. Dimitri Ivanovski used this filter to study tobacco mosaic virus. He published experiments showing that crushed leaf extracts of infected tobacco plants were still infectious after filtering through such filters. At about the same time, several others documented filterable disease-causing agents, with several independent experiments showing that viruses were different from bacteria, yet they could also cause disease in living organisms. These experiments showed that viruses are orders of magnitudes smaller than bacteria. The term virus was coined by the Dutch microbiologist Martinus Beijerinck.
In the early 20th century, Frederick Twort discovered that bacteria could be attacked by viruses. Felix d'Herelle, working independently, showed that a preparation of viruses caused areas of cellular death on thin cell cultures spread on agar. Counting the dead areas allowed him to estimate the original number of viruses in the suspension. The invention of Electron microscopy provided the first look at viruses. In 1935 Wendell Stanley crystallised the tobacco mosaic virus and found it to be mostly protein. A short time later the virus was separated into protein and nucleic acid parts. In 1939, Max Delbrück and E.L. Ellis demonstrated that, in contrast to cellular organisms, bacteriophage reproduce in "one step", rather than exponentially.
A major problem for early virologists was the inability to propagate viruses on sterile culture media, as is done with cellular microorganisms. This limitation required medical virologists to infect living animals with infectious material, which is dangerous. The first breakthrough came in 1931, when Ernest William Goodpasture demonstrated the growth of influenza and several other viruses in fertile chicken eggs. However, many viruses would not grow in chicken eggs, and a more flexible technique was needed for propagation of viruses. The solution came in 1949 when John Franklin Enders, Thomas H. Weller and Frederick Chapman Robbins together developed a technique to grow polio virus in cultures of living animal cells. Their methods have since been extended and applied to the growth of many viruses and other infectious agents that do not grow on sterile culture media.
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- Behbehani AM (1983). "The smallpox story: life and death of an old disease". Microbiol Rev 47 (4): 455-509. PMID 6319980. http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?tool=pubmed&pubmedid=6319980.
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