A free virus particle may be thought of as a packaging device by which viral genetic material can be introduced into appropriate host cells, which the virus can recognize by means of proteins on its outermost surface. A bacterial virus infects the cell by attaching fibers of its protein tail to a specific receptor site on the bacterial cell wall and then injecting the nucleic acid into the host, leaving the empty capsid outside. In viruses with a membrane envelope the nucleocapsid (capsid plus nucleic acid) enters the cell cytoplasm by a process in which the viral envelope merges with a host cell membrane, often the membrane delimiting an endocytic structure (see endocytosis) in which the virus has been engulfed.
Within the cell the virus nucleic acid uses the host machinery to make copies of the viral nucleic acid as well as enzymes needed by the virus and coats and enveloping proteins, the coat proteins of the virus. The details of the process by which the information in viral nucleic acid is expressed and the sites in the cell where the virus locates vary according to the type of nucleic acid the virus contains and other viral features. As viral components are formed within a host cell, virions are created by a self-assembly process; that is, capsomere subunits spontaneously assemble into a protein coat around the nucleic core. Release of virus particles from the host may occur by lysis of the host cell, as in bacteria, or by budding from the host cell's surface that provides the envelope of membrane-enveloped forms.
Some viruses do not kill host cells but rather persist within them in one form or another. For example, certain of the viruses that can transform cells into a cancerous state (see cancer) are retroviruses; their genetic material is RNA but they carry an enzyme that can copy the RNA's information into DNA molecules, which then can integrate into the genetic apparatus of the host cell and reside there, generating corresponding products via host cell machinery. Similarly, in bacterial DNA viruses known as temperate phages, the viral nucleic acid becomes integrated into the host cell chromosomal material, a condition known as lysogeny; lysogenic phages are similar in many ways to genetic particles in bacterial cells called episomes (see recombination).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.