How Viruses Attack Cells and Infiltrate DNA

Viruses: Genes Gone Rogue

Viruses are packets of genes on the run. They don't have any fancy biological equipment of their own, and must hijack the cells of living organisms in order to replicate.

Some viruses go as far as integrating with our DNA to become part of us forever. Depending on your mood, you might call them intracellular parasites, mobile genetic elements, or freeloading gits.


What are Viruses?

Structurally, viruses are highly streamlined. They're composed of a string of genetic material which can be RNA or DNA inside a protein shell called a capsid.

And that's pretty much it—they're extraordinarily simple particles compared to the complexity of living cells.

Anatomy of a virus: SARS-CoV-2 has around 30,000 nucleic acid bases which make up 15 genes, encased in a capsid and envelope studded with spike proteins

Anatomy of a virus. The infamous SARS-CoV-2 has RNA of around 30,000 bases (A, C, T, U) which make up 15 genes.

Viruses can infect all domains of life. They evolved alongside cells for billions of years, unlocking the biological entry codes to infect all bacteria, plants, fungi, and animals.

This co-evolution gave rise to incredible diversity, with an estimated 3.6 million virus species in vertebrates. They range from 25-700 nanometres in size, with so-called giant viruses being visible under a light microscope.

There are 219 virus species known to infect humans. And yet, amazingly, more than 140,000 virus species were recently discovered in the human gut. These aren't human viruses—they're bacteriophages: viruses that hijack our gut bacteria.

Three types of viruses found in humans

Three types of viruses found in humans.

When they infect us, viruses damage our cells and trigger an immune response, both of which create the symptoms of infectious disease. Here are a few notorious examples.

Virus Disease Genome
Rhinovirus Common Cold RNA
Adenovirus Common Cold, Pneumonia DNA
Coronavirus Common Cold, SARS, COVID RNA
Rubella Virus German Measles RNA
Variola Virus Smallpox DNA
Norovirus Gastroenteritis RNA

What's the game plan for viruses? Are they alive? Do they evolve? Do they have deep-seated wants and needs? Let's head over to the view of evolutionary biology.

Are Viruses Alive?

Traditionally, biologists said no: viruses are not alive because they lack the equipment to metabolise, grow, and self-replicate.

But we also know that viruses possess genes, which allow them to mutate, adapt, and evolve. They also share a common genetic code with all living cells, suggesting they branch from the universal tree of life.

So how did viruses evolve to be relegated to the world of the undead? There are three main hypotheses of viral origins.

Virus Origins: The Virus First, Regressive, and Escape Hypotheses

Classical hypotheses of viral origins. (1) The Virus First Hypothesis says viruses preceded all cellular life. (2) The Reduction Hypothesis says some primitive cells spun-off into the first viruses, while others became modern cells. (3) The Escape Hypothesis says viruses are genes that evolved to survive outside modern cells.

Recent comparisons of viral and cellular proteins reveal intricate overlaps in their proteomes (protein sets). This favours the reduction hypothesis, where early parasitic cells dropped their standard equipment to become the first viruses.

Fast forward a couple billion years. Modern viruses are so streamlined as to have just 4-200 genes. This compares to 180-12,000 genes in bacteria, and around 20,000 genes in humans. (Just to mix things up a bit: water fleas have 31,000 genes.)

So the question—are viruses alive—is somewhat open. We might think of viruses in the wild as dormant, coming to life only when they hijack cells. While some simply redirect our biological machinery, others set up compartmentalised virus factories where they metabolise and reproduce with autonomy.

It's life, Jim, but not as we know it.

The Great Cell Hijack

What do viruses actually do inside our cells? And are all infected cells doomed?

Cells are the multipurpose biological factories that make up our tissues. They're up to 1,000 times bigger than viruses, and have complex internal structures bustling with organelles and enzymes.

Our DNA lives in the nucleus of virtually every cell in the body, serving as a kind of recipe book. It informs the production of all cell components, as well as essential proteins secreted beyond.

These proteins do all kinds of work around the body. They're typically large, complex molecules and include familiar characters like hormones, antibodies, and enzymes.

Animal Cell Diagram Cartoon Style

The basic features of an animal cell.

So DNA isn't only relevant during foetal development; it's actually expressed throughout your lifetime on a continual basis.

DNA expression is broadly a two-step process of transcription (making a disposable copy of a gene recipe) and translation (converting the recipe into a protein product).

The Central Dogma of DNA expression explains how DNA works using transcription, RNA processing, and translation

The Central Dogma of DNA expression.

Being devious little wretches, viruses sneak right into this pathway to replicate their own genes and protein body parts. While some viruses drop their genes into the cytoplasm, others inject them into the nucleus which has major consequences as we'll see in a moment.

The viral pathway in cells: how coronavirus infects cells

The pathway of a coronavirus in cells. (1) A virion binds with a cell receptor to gain entry. (2) The entire unit is engulfed inside a lipid bubble called an endosome, which it escapes to (3) release its RNA into the cytoplasm. (4) The RNA is translated into chains of amino acids which fold up to form proteins. (5) The viral proteins self-assemble in new virions and are packaged into a secretory vesicle for (6) exocytosis out of the cell.

Cells that succumb to viral infection are doomed. That's usually because the viral genes are translated at the expense of host genes, damaging or destroying the cell in the process. Then the nanoscale army continues on its path of destruction.

Fortunately, this operation isn't completely covert. When viruses enter cells, they leave molecular calling cards on the cell surface. These are antigens. And they provide our immune system with was to identify viral invaders.

Over several days, our immune cells multiply and target the invading pathogen. Based on the antigen, cytotoxic T-cells identify and destroy contaminated cells. Meanwhile, B-cells release antibodies into the blood and mucus membranes to neutralise roaming virions.

Key cells of the adaptive immune system

Key cells of the adaptive immune system.

But this adaptive immune response takes time. Until then, the viral army scales to extraordinary volumes. At peak COVID infection, just one millilitre of your saliva contains 200 million SARS-CoV-2 virions. So-called supercarriers can host up to 6 trillion virions per ml.

And yet, viruses are so small that the entire mass of SARS-CoV-2 in the global population is estimated to be just 1-10kg. It's bonkers.

How Viruses Integrate with Our DNA

Most viruses, including SARS-CoV-2, drop off their genes in the cell cytoplasm, and don't appear to interact with our DNA at all. But there are exceptions.

Retroviruses are hell-bent on eternal life, integrating their DNA alongside our own in the nucleus. Clinically, the most significant retrovirus is HIV which causes AIDS.

How does this happen? The HIV virus uses an enzyme called reverse transcriptase to convert its RNA backwards into DNA. It then injects the DNA into a nuclear pore complex so it can integrate with the host DNA.

In this purely genetic form, the HIV virus becomes a provirus. Nestled alongside the host genes, proviral genes are expressed to reproduce HIV for life.

How retroviruses integrate their RNA into human DNA in cells

The retrovirus infection cycle. (1) The retrovirus binds to a cell receptor to gain entry. (2) Reverse transcriptase converts the viral genome from RNA to DNA. (3) The capsid injects the viral DNA along with an enzyme called integrase into the nucleus. (4) Integrase catalyses the insertion of viral DNA at target sites to create a permanent store. (5) To replicate, the provirus is then transcribed back into mRNA which is (6) exported out of the nucleus. (7) The mRNA is translated into viral proteins which self-assemble and (8) exit the cell.

Typically, the HIV virus targets immune cells, ultimately leading to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). But HIV attacks other cells too. When it infects germ cells (sperm and eggs), it hitches a ride within the genome of future generations.

Today, we all have proviruses inside our DNA—or at least, the fragmented remnants of their genes. But if natural selection prunes away useless genes, why are proviral sequences still with us today?

How Viruses Shaped Our Evolution

When proviral genes land in host DNA, they can be co-opted for new purposes, ultimately driving new adaptations.

For instance, a select group of retroviral genes were put to work in mammals 130 million years ago. They bestowed our ancestors with novel proteins that supported fusion between cells, facilitating the evolution of the placenta.

This is how viruses changed the course of animal evolution: they actually handed us cool new genes.

But there is a finite window in which we can take advantage of viral genes. Over time, the unused sequences become corrupted by random mutation, degrading into strings of non-coding DNA which clutter up our genetic bank.

What's more, viral elements have a propensity to replicate within our genome using a copy-and-paste style mechanism. It explains their astonishing abundance today: of the 3 billion bases in human DNA, up to 1.4 billion may have viral origins.

Once written off by geneticists as junk DNA, these non-coding snippets of As, Cs, Gs, and Ts are now thought to have valuable functions. For instance, they may provide a genetic sandbox from which novel genes can emerge.

Then there's the extraordinary facility of jumping genes.

Jumping Genes

Around half of our DNA consists of transposable elements—sequences of A, C, G, and T bases that move around within our genome, earning them the moniker of "jumping genes". A large portion of these elements have proviral origins.

When jumping genes copy-and-paste themselves within our DNA, the precise landing site determines whether our DNA is altered in a positive, neutral, or negative way.

Jumping genes can interrupt the sequence of coding DNA to cause disease

Jumping genes can interrupt the sequence of coding DNA to start, stop, and alter the expression of our genes. In evolutionary terms, this can be hugely beneficial. But as individuals, we're nature's guinea pigs.

Retroviruses have also littered our genome with extra promoter sequences, which serve as on-switches when located at the start of coding genes. We've successfully co-opted many viral promoters in our evolution.

And yet there are some genes we very much want to keep switched off under normal circumstances. This is where jumping promoters can cause problems.

Consider that we have around 40 genes that direct cell growth and repair. When they're not required, they're inactivated. Switching them on in error can lead to runaway cell growth—aka cancer.

For this to happen, a proto-oncogene must first undergo a mutation to become an oncogene. Now it's a gun, cocked and loaded. Although we have many checks and balances to avoid it firing, jumping promoters can pull the trigger.

When a promoter jumps and lands near the start of an oncogene, it can trigger cancer.
How jumping promoter genes can activate oncogenes to cause cancer

A promoter jumps downstream to activate an oncogene.

Research is uncovering a growing number of mechanisms by which these self-appointed gene managers can trigger diseases like ALS, MS, haemophilia, and schizophrenia. So how often do genes jump?

The most abundant jumping gene, Alu, makes up around 10% of our DNA. At 300 base pairs long, Alu has copied and pasted itself a million times since it took up residence in our genome 65 million years ago. These mobile genetic elements are so active that new Alu insertions are estimated to affect 1 in 20 births.

Is this bad? Not always. In the course of evolution, Alu sequences have been co-opted as gene regulators, helping control gene expression throughout the lifetime. Unfortunately, Alu jumps can also trigger blood and neurological disorders.

However, for the most part, Alu elements usually land in non-coding regions, which rather adds value to that so-called junk DNA.

Final Thoughts

Viruses are everywhere. In supermarkets. In labs. In bacteria. In our DNA. We even use them in medicine: viruses can be adapted to carry genetic material to our cells, whether to cure disease with gene therapy or prevent it with genetic vaccines.

Viruses have been around for billions of years and, looking at the state of our genome, will be with us for a long time to come. Good or bad, dead or alive, if there's one thing you can say about viruses... it's that they're spectacularly successful at what we're all ultimately programmed to do: replicate our genes.

Becky Casale Author Bio

Becky Casale is a science blogger based in Auckland. If you like her content, please share it with your friends. If you don't like it, why not punish your enemies by sharing it with them?