Understanding viruses and challenges in microbiology

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© Cameron Baines

What are viruses?

Viruses are the smallest of all the microbes. They are said to be so small that 500 million rhinoviruses (which cause the common cold) could fit on to the head of a pin. They are unique because they are able to multiply inside the cells of other living things. The cell they multiply in is called the host cell. 

The impact of viruses

A virus can infect all forms of life and is made up of a core of genetic material, either DNA or RNA, surrounded by a protective coat called a capsid which is made up of a protein shell, with a nucleic acid centre. The shells protect the nucleic acid and serve to deliver this to new cells in order to spread infection. It is the nucleic acid that initiates disease.

Why does understanding viruses matter to microbiology?

Virology holds a central position in both microbiology and public perception, never more than now as we face the challenge of a new viral pathogen.

Understanding how pathogens spread, engaging in ongoing research in order to develop a better understanding of viruses and developing countermeasures to help protect populations from transmission, is fundamental to microbiologists role in understanding viruses and addressing the challenges in microbiology.

We will explore three key areas which are helping us to develop a better understanding of viruses and the challenge for microbiology below. Click on each content hub to find out more about how the microbiology community is working to understand viruses and access our further reading materials and additional resources.  

  • The life cycle of pathogens and how they spread

    A pathogen is a micro-organism that has the potential to cause disease. There are a number of different types of pathogenic organisms associated with disease including viruses, bacteria, protists and fungi.

  • Emerging viruses

    Over the years a number of novel pathogens continue to emerge in human, domestic animal, wildlife and plant populations. Emerging and re-emerging viruses will be a continuing threat to human health because of their amazing potential to adapt to their current hosts, to switch to new hosts and to evolve strategies to escape antiviral measures.

  • How viruses are treated

    There are a number of different methods that are available to treat certain viruses, however the rise of antimicrobial resistance has proved a challenge, therefore the development of novel therapeutics and techniques to help prevent transmission and ease the risk of global outbreaks, has had a pivotal role in the world of microbiology.

Image credits:
D68 Structure. Cameron Baines
Joseph Snowden
Cameron Baines
Nicola Stonehouse and Oluwapelumi Adeyemi