Are Viruses Living?

Let’s first define life. According to the online Merriam-Webster Dictionary, life is “an organismic state characterized by capacity for metabolism, growth, reaction to stimuli, and reproduction.”

Viruses are not living things. Viruses are complicated assemblies of molecules, including proteins, nucleic acids, lipids, and carbohydrates, but on their own they can do nothing until they enter a living cell. Without cells, viruses would not be able to multiply. Therefore, viruses are not living things.

When a virus encounters a cell, a series of chemical reactions occur that lead to the production of new viruses. These steps are completely passive, that is, they are predefined by the nature of the molecules that comprise the virus particle. Viruses don’t actually ‘do’ anything. Often scientists and non-scientists alike ascribe actions to viruses such as employing, displaying, destroying, evading, exploiting, and so on. These terms are incorrect because viruses are passive, completely at the mercy of their environment.

Update: See a more recent post for my thoughts on this question.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Daddys_little_brate 28 September 2011, 1:50 pm

    Viruses are living LIARS!

  • Andrew Broadbent 29 September 2011, 1:05 am

    Do you count Chlamydia trachomatis as alive?? It is an obligate intracellular parasite that can’t replicate without a host-cell, but it’s a bacterium and metabolically active and divides by binary fission- but it’s metabolic pathways are incomplete, hence its reliance on a host cell. 

    Isn’t  all cellular life just an accumulation of chemical reactions? why are viruses different?

    You could also argue that viruses react to stimuli (latency Vs reactivation triggers), and “reproduce”. 

  • Hjrgdujgdruh 2 October 2011, 2:18 am

    -___- This shit better be correct Man

  • the cool one 6 October 2011, 9:24 pm

    i relly dont get this!!!!! some say they are alive some say they arnt! wich 1 should i pick???? well this somewhat answered my homework…………….

  • the cool one 6 October 2011, 9:38 pm

    true, true but they cannot ‘do’ anything unless it has a HOST!!!!!!! therefore a virus is just a hunk of molecules and deasases that latch onto a cell and infect it!!!!!!

  • big mama 7 October 2011, 12:21 am

    this is very useful info. now i can do my report on this topic. i have got all i need right here

  • big mama 7 October 2011, 12:22 am

    go girl!!!!

  • hotie24467 7 October 2011, 12:24 am

    dang lots of words but useful words!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! thanks

  • Virology Department 7 October 2011, 3:15 am

    Viruses are on the border of being biotic and abiotic,  although they do not metabolize nor do they obtain and use energy they contain a genetic code wether it’s DNA or RNA.  Viruses have also been proven to evolve over time which means it undergoes natural selection. Virus are living, but just barely. 

  • Tony 11 October 2011, 7:30 pm

    The way that viruses in general are currently defined and allegedly ‘function’ is problematic, despite the fact that the vast majority of microbiologists see no problem(s) at all.

    There is no ‘border’ between biotic and abiotic where viruses can be conveniently placed, and to imply that they have been proven to evolve over time without metabolism and energy via natural selection is simply science fiction. Only living organisms have been found to evolve and according to most virologists and microbiologists viruses are not living organisms in the strict sense. Claims have been made that viruses have been ‘found’ in the fossil record but such claims have not stood up to rigorous scientific scrutiny.

    In a nutshell, what viruses actually are and how they really operate can never be completely understood and explained within the current scientific framework which merely contents itself with the study of the physical appearances and chemical composition of bits of genetic material (and their deleterious effects on susceptible host cells in the case of alleged ‘pathogenic’ viruses).

  • Kght55 14 October 2011, 11:02 pm

    Thanks, this will help me on my science project

  • Thinking 16 October 2011, 11:06 pm

    They are inactive

  • swaggerful 17 October 2011, 11:22 pm

    ikr… it sort of answered my homework but im still not sure…:)

  • person 26 October 2011, 3:24 am

    things do occur when a virus is not infecting a host, particularly within DNA viruses (poxviruses, simian virus 40)– chromatin rearrangement, basal level transciptional regulation, tegument protein packaging (herpes simplex)… 

  • Andrew Broadbent 26 October 2011, 11:30 pm

    Do you count Chlamydia trachomatis as alive?? It is an obligate intracellular parasite that can’t replicate without a host-cell, but it’s a bacterium and metabolically active and divides by binary fission- but it’s metabolic pathways are incomplete, hence its reliance on a host cell. Isn’t  all cellular life just an accumulation of chemical reactions? why are viruses different?You could also argue that viruses react to stimuli (latency Vs reactivation triggers), and “reproduce”.

  • Tony 27 October 2011, 3:49 pm

    Interesting question Andrew. Insofar as materialistic science is concerned which is also reductionist – all cellular life is just an accumulation of chemical reactions that are organized in some form or other. That is all there is to it until one comes to try and explain precisely what organizes the chemical reactions and the energies and forces involved in the process.

  • Jillian 2 November 2011, 12:12 am

    Umm ok for ur information they can reproduce! The way them landing on a living cell and ingecting its genetics into the cell and it then forms into more viruses.Thank you very much and thats only for active viruses!

  • Tony 2 November 2011, 2:31 pm

    Thanks Jillian for that brilliant refutation of my position!

    Perhaps you can explain to me in scientific terms precisely how the host cells are constrained to function so that they really do reproduce an ‘active virus’ and not something else. Secondly, in what way is a virus ‘active’ and what methods are used to determine that there is indeed an ‘active virus’ present as opposed to something else that may be causing the cell to produce particles that may look like viruses but are not?

     ‘Injecting its genetics’ by the way, even if we concede that a virus could do that, may not be sufficient to secure the viral reproduction/infection process  in the host that is usually blamed for causing a certain disease.

  • Tony 2 November 2011, 8:54 pm

    Thank you!  

    Still no response from Prof. Racaniello. Would have appreciated some constructive (or destructive) criticisms!

  • Dude 4 November 2011, 1:21 am

    Thats What Shee Said!

  • Dude 4 November 2011, 1:23 am

    I’m 10 and I know that!

  • Tony 4 November 2011, 10:38 am

    Depends on how you define ‘matter’ Proto – are you implying that electron fields etc have no substantiality?. For example, what is meant by ‘completely immaterial’ – do you mean ‘nonphysical’ or ‘nonsubstantial’ > If energy has no substance or materiality we are talking about abstractions pure and simple. What about grades of substance less dense than physical matter at the subquantum level but matter all the same? 

  • biggz tmg 7 November 2011, 9:38 pm

    K.. so you guys feel nice because you know this and your only 11 and 10? nobody gives a fuck!!!!1

  • Guest 8 November 2011, 7:33 am

    how have they existed over the eons?

  • Christian 8 November 2011, 9:16 pm

    You’re cool. Why not be a cocky ass somewhere else?

  • gdog 12 November 2011, 1:49 am

    ok, i just want to settle this once and for all. viruses are not living! they have to use a “host” cell by ejecting dna and rna into the cell and forceing it to make clones, so the cell reproduces not the viruses wich proves it is not living

  • Gdog 12 November 2011, 1:54 am

    dude they dont reproduce the cell does. they ejecy rna and dna into the cell forcing it to reproduce wich proves they are not living!

  • Gdog 12 November 2011, 1:58 am

    thank you tony. im tired of peaple saying they reproduce and they are alive. if anyone doesnt beleive me buy mcmillians “life science”

  • Tony 12 November 2011, 9:15 pm

    Viruses can’t ‘use’ anything if they are not living – they have no effective means of doing that, perhaps that’s why Prof Racaniello says that viruses don’t actually ‘do’ anything, as its alleged to be all about Newtonian chemical reaction mechanisms both inside and outside of the host cells. 

    If the  the human body is conceived as a type of physical machine that runs in accordance with Newtonian principles, then that position requires viruses to ‘function’ in the host body in a similar manner. However, the whole process of viral infection/reproduction is problematic as it currently stands for a number of different reasons that I have discussed in other posts.

    Viruses reproduce squat – you are correct.

  • Tony 12 November 2011, 9:20 pm

    Thay have not. Nobody has produced any strong evidence to suggest that they have, and that includes the speculative stuff pertaining to their alleged existence in fossil record.

  • Tony 25 November 2011, 9:09 pm

    Professor Racaniello, I asked you a question 8 months ago – an important question, concerning viral replication and the energy released by a virus when its chemical bonds are broken (the only disposable energy that a particular virus has). I would appreciate an answer from you when you have the time as it is an pertinent  scientific question. Here, is the question again:

    Viral replication is allegedly a process which takes place under definite and specifiable conditions. Therefore, if virus particles release energy say, during virus entry, what precisely are the conditions which determine that the released energy will be used in viral replication and not something else? I also asked you for some criticisms whether constructive or destructive of my post (9 months ago)regarding the problem of teleology etc in the explanation of the process of viral replication/infection.I would appreciate your answers/comments to these issues when you have the time.Best regards

  • cool 26 November 2011, 10:48 am

    so if your saying that viruses are not living, then you support the theory of spontaneous generation? 

  • Gaganmusafir 10 December 2011, 11:22 am

    is viruses a dead or living

  • Science for Ransom 10 December 2011, 7:21 pm

    Then are Rickettsia also non-living because they are intracellular obligate parasites?

  • GDOG1085 14 December 2011, 10:11 pm


  • GDOG1085 14 December 2011, 6:26 pm

    tony screw everybody else u r right and u know IT  oh yeah viruses do NOT  have ATP

  • Natnell 15 December 2011, 7:46 am

    why is virues non living

  • Natnell_97 15 December 2011, 7:49 am

    do veruse fulfil the most basic charictest of life

  • Shan Ali solangi 17 December 2011, 11:30 pm

    is virus  male? if it is female or if it is a male then has virus female ?

  • Morgan 21 December 2011, 5:50 pm

    well Gdog i think viruses are alive. viruses are dorment when they arent in a cell it doesnt mean they arent alive. when in the dorment stage they are in a crystal form. when they get into their right environment they become active. true they need a host but they have the ability to minipulate the cell into giving it materials and energy to grow.

  • Anionix54 31 December 2011, 10:03 am

    Maybe viruses are even smarter than we are? They are more successful organisms than us. They exist nearly everywhere, places we cant. They use us to transport them places. They use us to reproduce. and they kill us.. We have their DNA and RNA in our cells from the past.

    I know the dictionary definition doesn’t quite fit them, however definitions change. At one point we believed that flying was only for birds, then we changed our minds. Maybe, just maybe we may have to change that definition to fit viruses. When it comes down to it, they do replicate. They need a cell just like semen needs an egg!

    At the end of the day, are viruses alive? it comes down to personal opinion. There is no fact either way, like say a rock-a rock is not alive, end of, but viruses….. 

  • Kaykay 3 January 2012, 5:07 pm

    great but needed more examples why they aren’t living.

  • lilly 11 January 2012, 4:50 pm

    Then why are you even looking up the information anyways. why don’t you just  grow up and know what to say when to say it 

  • Pritchare 11 January 2012, 4:51 pm

    Thanks so much for taking your time to help us understand that if it is living or not living 

  • person 20 January 2012, 1:36 pm

    people i’m 11 and i know viruses aren’t living. the only thing that shows they posiibly might be is that they reproduce

  • Hyhjjjhhmj 25 January 2012, 4:08 pm

    SoUtHS1D3 :.13

  • Gr8lilbro 30 January 2012, 6:38 pm

    thx no more home work for me;] i go to prms matthew

  • Trulyjewelly 1 February 2012, 2:22 pm

    You make a good case for viruses not “living” – they are passive and they don’t do anything. Any observable feats are thanks to automatic happenings in the environment. They are balls of protein casing with some nucleic acids in the middle. Does that mean they don’t respire or have any energy? What if when ammassing in a host they can be seen as a community and as such behave with intelligence – at least there is some intention, even if coming direct from their DNA programming. So, they’re not conscious individually, and each one is so incredibly small that I suppose it’s not far off an atom, so you would imagine you were talking about a unit in a larger entity anyway. So, that larger entity which behaves with intention – to take over – might be more “alive”.