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Biology LibreTexts

9.1C: Viral Genomes

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    • Contributed by Boundless
    • General Microbiology at Boundless


    • Generalize the features of viral genomes

    Viral diseases have an enormous impact on human health worldwide. Genomic technologies are providing infectious disease researchers an unprecedented capability to study at a genetic level the viruses that cause disease and their interactions with infected hosts. An enormous variety of genomic structures can be seen among viral species; as a group, they contain more structural genomic diversity than plants, animals, archaea, or bacteria. There are millions of different types of viruses, although only about 5,000 of them have been described in detail.

    Figure: Diagram of a virus: The location of the genome inside the virus.

    A virus has either DNA or RNA genes and is called a DNA virus or a RNA virus, respectively. The vast majority of viruses have RNA genomes. Plant viruses tend to have single-stranded RNA genomes and bacteriophages tend to have double-stranded DNA genomes. Viral genomes are circular, as in the polyomaviruses, or linear, as in the adenoviruses. The type of nucleic acid is irrelevant to the shape of the genome. Among RNA viruses and certain DNA viruses, the genome is often divided up into separate parts, in which case it is called segmented. For RNA viruses, each segment often codes for only one protein, and they are usually found together in one capsid. However, all segments are not required to be in the same virion for the virus to be infectious, as demonstrated by the brome mosaic virus and several other plant viruses.

    A viral genome, irrespective of nucleic acid type, is almost always either single-stranded or double-stranded. Single-stranded genomes consist of an unpaired nucleic acid, analogous to one-half of a ladder split down the middle. Double-stranded genomes consist of two complementary paired nucleic acids, analogous to a ladder. The virus particles of some virus families, such as those belonging to the Hepadnaviridae, contain a genome that is partially double-stranded and partially single-stranded.

    Key Points

    • In modern molecular biology and genetics, the genome is the entirety of an organism ‘s hereditary information. It is encoded either in DNA or, for many types of virus, in RNA.
    • A virus has either DNA or RNA genes and is called a DNA virus or a RNA virus.
    • The genome includes both the genes and the non-coding sequences of the DNA/RNA.

    Key Terms

    • genome: The complete genetic information (either DNA or, in some viruses, RNA) of an organism, typically expressed in the number of basepairs.