The Viral Structures


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(a) In this transmission electron micrograph, a bacteriophage (a virus that infects bacteria) is dwarfed by the bacterial cell it infects. (b) An illustration of the bacteriophage in the micrograph. (credit a: modification of work by U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Science, LBL, PBD)

OpenStax Microbiology

In general, virions (viral particles) are small and cannot be observed using a regular light microscope. They are much smaller than prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells; this is an adaptation allowing viruses to infect these larger cells. The size of a virion can range from 20 nm for small viruses up to 900 nm for typical, large viruses. Recent discoveries, however, have identified new giant viral species, such as Pandoravirus salinus and Pithovirus sibericum, with sizes approaching that of a bacterial cell.

The size of a virus is small relative to the size of most bacterial and eukaryotic cells and their organelles.

Source: OpenStax Microbiology

In 1935, after the development of the electron microscope, Wendell Stanley was the first scientist to crystallize the structure of the tobacco mosaic virus and discovered that it is composed of RNA and protein. In 1943, he isolated Influenza B virus, which contributed to the development of an influenza (flu) vaccine. Stanley’s discoveries unlocked the mystery of the nature of viruses that had been puzzling scientists for over 40 years and his contributions to the field of virology led to him being awarded the Nobel Prize in 1946.

As a result of continuing research into the nature of viruses, we now know they consist of a nucleic acid (either RNA or DNA, but never both) surrounded by a protein coat called a capsid. The interior of the capsid is not filled with cytosol, as in a cell, but instead it contains the bare necessities in terms of genome and enzymes needed to direct the synthesis of new virions. Each capsid is composed of protein subunits called capsomeres made of one or more different types of capsomere proteins that interlock to form the closely packed capsid.

There are two categories of viruses based on general composition. Viruses formed from only a nucleic acid and capsid are called naked viruses or nonenveloped viruses. Viruses formed with a nucleic-acid packed capsid surrounded by a lipid layer are called enveloped viruses. The viral envelope is a small portion of phospholipid membrane obtained as the virion buds from a host cell. The viral envelope may either be intracellular or cytoplasmic in origin.

Extending outward and away from the capsid on some naked viruses and enveloped viruses are protein structures called spikes. At the tips of these spikes are structures that allow the virus to attach and enter a cell, like the influenza virus hemagglutinin spikes (H) or enzymes like the neuraminidase (N) influenza virus spikes that allow the virus to detach from the cell surface during release of new virions. Influenza viruses are often identified by their H and N spikes. For example, H1N1 influenza viruses were responsible for the pandemics in 1918 and 2009, H2N2 for the pandemic in 1957, and H3N2 for the pandemic in 1968.

(a) The naked atadenovirus uses spikes made of glycoproteins from its capsid to bind to host cells. (b) The enveloped human immunodeficiency virus uses spikes made of glycoproteins embedded in its envelope to bind to host cells (credit a “micrograph”: modification of work by NIAID; credit b “micrograph”: modification of work by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Viruses vary in the shape of their capsids, which can be either helical, polyhedral, or complex. A helical capsid forms the shape of tobacco mosaic virus (TMV), a naked helical virus, and Ebola virus, an enveloped helical virus. The capsid is cylindrical or rod shaped, with the genome fitting just inside the length of the capsid. Polyhedral capsids form the shapes of poliovirus and rhinovirus, and consist of a nucleic acid surrounded by a polyhedral (manysided) capsid in the form of an icosahedron. An icosahedral capsid is a three-dimensional, 20-sided structure with 12 vertices. These capsids somewhat resemble a soccer ball. Both helical and polyhedral viruses can have envelopes. Viral shapes seen in certain types of bacteriophages, such as T4 phage, and poxviruses, like vaccinia virus, may have features of both polyhedral and helical viruses so they are described as a complex viral shape. In the bacteriophage complex form, the genome is located within the polyhedral head and the sheath connects the head to the tail fibers and tail pins that help the virus attach to receptors on the host cell’s surface. Poxviruses that have complex shapes are often brick shaped, with intricate surface characteristics not seen in the other categories of capsid.

Viral capsids can be (a) helical, (b) polyhedral, or (c) have a complex shape. (credit a “micrograph”: modification of work by USDA ARS; credit b “micrograph”: modification of work by U.S. Department of Energy)


Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: