Discovery and Detection of Virus


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Micrograph a shows a virus with a hexagonal head that stands on thin, bent legs. The virus sits on the surface of a cell that is so large that only a small fraction of its surface is visible. Micrograph b shows small bacterial cells that are about the size of the organelles in the adjacent colon cells.
Most virus particles are visible only by electron microscopy. In these transmission electron micrographs, (a) a virus is as dwarfed by the bacterial cell it infects, as (b) these E. coli cells are dwarfed by cultured colon cells. (credit a: modification of work by U.S. Dept. of Energy, Office of Science, LBL, PBD; credit b: modification of work by J.P. Nataro and S. Sears, unpub. data, CDC; scale-bar data from Matt Russell)
The left electron micrograph shows the tobacco mosaic virus, which is shaped like a long, thin rectangle. The right photo shows an orchid leaf in varying states of decay. Initial symptoms are yellow and brown spots. Eventually, the entire leaf turns yellow with brown blotches, then completely brown.
The tobacco mosaic virus, seen here by transmission electron microscopy (left), was the first virus to be discovered. The virus causes disease in tobacco and other plants, such as the orchid (right). (credit a: USDA ARS; credit b: modification of work by USDA Forest Service, Department of Plant Pathology Archive North Carolina State University; scale-bar data from Matt Russell)

OpenStax Biology 2e

Viruses were first discovered after the development of a porcelain filter—the Chamberland-Pasteur filter—that could remove all bacteria visible in the microscope from any liquid sample. In 1886, Adolph Meyer demonstrated that a disease of tobacco plants—tobacco mosaic disease—could be transferred from a diseased plant to a healthy one via liquid plant extracts. In 1892, Dmitri Ivanowski showed that this disease could be transmitted in this way even after the Chamberland-Pasteur filter had removed all viable bacteria from the extract. Still, it was many years before it was proved that these “filterable” infectious agents were not simply very small bacteria but were a new type of very small, disease-causing particle.

Most virions, or single virus particles, are very small, about 20 to 250 nanometers in diameter. However, some recently discovered viruses from amoebae range up to 1000 nm in diameter. With the exception of large virions, like the poxvirus and other large DNA viruses, viruses cannot be seen with a light microscope. It was not until the development of the electron microscope in the late 1930s that scientists got their first good view of the structure of the tobacco mosaic virus (TMV), discussed above, and other viruses. The surface structure of virions can be observed by both scanning and transmission electron microscopy, whereas the internal structures of the virus can only be observed in images from a transmission electron microscope. The use of electron microscopy and other technologies has allowed for the discovery of many viruses of all types of living organisms.


Clark, M., Douglas, M., Choi, J. Biology 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at:

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