virus, parasite with a noncellular structure composed mainly of nucleic acid within a protein coat. Most viruses are too small (100–2,000 Angstrom units) to be seen with the light microscope and thus must be studied by electron microscopes. In one stage of their life cycle, in which they are free and infectious, virus particles do not carry out the functions of living cells, such as respiration and growth; in the other stage, however, viruses enter living plant, animal, or bacterial cells and make use of the host cell's chemical energy and its protein- and nucleic acid–synthesizing ability to replicate themselves.

The existence of submicroscopic infectious agents was suspected by the end of the 19th cent.; in 1892 the Russian botanist Dimitri Iwanowski showed that the sap from tobacco plants infected with mosaic disease, even after being passed through a porcelain filter known to retain all bacteria, contained an agent that could infect other tobacco plants. In 1900 a similarly filterable agent was reported for foot-and-mouth disease of cattle. In 1935 the American virologist W. M. Stanley crystallized tobacco mosaic virus; for that work Stanley shared the 1946 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with J. H. Northrup and J. B. Summer. Later studies of virus crystals established that the crystals were composed of individual virus particles, or virions. By the early 21st cent. the understanding of viruses had grown to the point where scientists synthesized (2002) a strain of poliovirus using their knowledge of that virus's genetic code and chemical components required.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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