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Biology LibreTexts

21.1C: Viral Morphology

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  • Viruses of all shapes and sizes consist of a nucleic acid core, an outer protein coating or capsid, and sometimes an outer envelope.


    Describe the relationship between the viral genome, capsid, and envelope


    Key Points

    • Viruses are classified into four groups based on shape: filamentous, isometric (or icosahedral), enveloped, and head and tail.
    • Many viruses attach to their host cells to facilitate penetration of the cell membrane, allowing their replication inside the cell.
    • Non-enveloped viruses can be more resistant to changes in temperature, pH, and some disinfectants than are enveloped viruses.
    • The virus core contains the small single- or double-stranded genome that encodes the proteins that the virus cannot get from the host cell.

    Key Terms

    • capsid: the outer protein shell of a virus
    • envelope: an enclosing structure or cover, such as a membrane
    • filamentous: Having the form of threads or filaments
    • isometric: of, or being a geometric system of three equal axes lying at right angles to each other (especially in crystallography)

    Viral Morphology

    Viruses are acellular, meaning they are biological entities that do not have a cellular structure. Therefore, they lack most of the components of cells, such as organelles, ribosomes, and the plasma membrane. A virion consists of a nucleic acid core, an outer protein coating or capsid, and sometimes an outer envelope made of protein and phospholipid membranes derived from the host cell. The capsid is made up of protein subunits called capsomeres. Viruses may also contain additional proteins, such as enzymes. The most obvious difference between members of viral families is their morphology, which is quite diverse. An interesting feature of viral complexity is that host and virion complexity are uncorrelated. Some of the most intricate virion structures are observed in bacteriophages, viruses that infect the simplest living organisms: bacteria.


    Viruses come in many shapes and sizes, but these are consistent and distinct for each viral family. In general, the shapes of viruses are classified into four groups: filamentous, isometric (or icosahedral), enveloped, and head and tail. Filamentous viruses are long and cylindrical. Many plant viruses are filamentous, including TMV (tobacco mosaic virus). Isometric viruses have shapes that are roughly spherical, such as poliovirus or herpesviruses. Enveloped viruses have membranes surrounding capsids. Animal viruses, such as HIV, are frequently enveloped. Head and tail viruses infect bacteria. They have a head that is similar to icosahedral viruses and a tail shape like filamentous viruses.

    Many viruses use some sort of glycoprotein to attach to their host cells via molecules on the cell called viral receptors. For these viruses, attachment is a requirement for later penetration of the cell membrane, allowing them to complete their replication inside the cell. The receptors that viruses use are molecules that are normally found on cell surfaces and have their own physiological functions. Viruses have simply evolved to make use of these molecules for their own replication.


    Example of a virus attaching to its host cell: The KSHV virus binds the xCT receptor on the surface of human cells. This attachment allows for later penetration of the cell membrane and replication inside the cell.

    Overall, the shape of the virion and the presence or absence of an envelope tell us little about what disease the virus may cause or what species it might infect, but they are still useful means to begin viral classification. Among the most complex virions known, the T4 bacteriophage, which infects the Escherichia coli bacterium, has a tail structure that the virus uses to attach to host cells and a head structure that houses its DNA. Adenovirus, a non-enveloped animal virus that causes respiratory illnesses in humans, uses glycoprotein spikes protruding from its capsomeres to attach to host cells. Non-enveloped viruses also include those that cause polio (poliovirus), plantar warts (papillomavirus), and hepatitis A (hepatitis A virus).


    Examples of virus shapes: Viruses can be either complex in shape or relatively simple. This figure shows three relatively-complex virions: the bacteriophage T4, with its DNA-containing head group and tail fibers that attach to host cells; adenovirus, which uses spikes from its capsid to bind to host cells; and HIV, which uses glycoproteins embedded in its envelope to bind to host cells.

    Enveloped virions like HIV consist of nucleic acid and capsid proteins surrounded by a phospholipid bilayer envelope and its associated proteins. Glycoproteins embedded in the viral envelope are used to attach to host cells. Other envelope proteins include the matrix proteins that stabilize the envelope and often play a role in the assembly of progeny virions. Chicken pox, influenza, and mumps are examples of diseases caused by viruses with envelopes. Because of the fragility of the envelope, non-enveloped viruses are more resistant to changes in temperature, pH, and some disinfectants than are enveloped viruses.

    Types of Nucleic Acid

    Unlike nearly all living organisms that use DNA as their genetic material, viruses may use either DNA or RNA. The virus core contains the genome or total genetic content of the virus. Viral genomes tend to be small, containing only those genes that encode proteins that the virus cannot obtain from the host cell. This genetic material may be single- or double-stranded. It may also be linear or circular. While most viruses contain a single nucleic acid, others have genomes that have several, called segments.

    In DNA viruses, the viral DNA directs the host cell’s replication proteins to synthesize new copies of the viral genome and to transcribe and translate that genome into viral proteins. DNA viruses cause human diseases, such as chickenpox, hepatitis B, and some venereal diseases, like herpes and genital warts.

    RNA viruses contain only RNA as their genetic material. To replicate their genomes in the host cell, the RNA viruses encode enzymes that can replicate RNA into DNA, which cannot be done by the host cell. These RNA polymerase enzymes are more likely to make copying errors than DNA polymerases and, therefore, often make mistakes during transcription. For this reason, mutations in RNA viruses occur more frequently than in DNA viruses. This causes them to change and adapt more rapidly to their host. Human diseases caused by RNA viruses include hepatitis C, measles, and rabies.