Are viruses alive? Honestly, if you’re asking this question, you might be having a bit of an existential crisis. That’s because the heart of the question is less about viruses themselves, and more about what defines a living thing. It’s a huge rabbit hole to go down, but we’ll take a look inside as we explore what it means to be “alive.”
What Is a Virus?
You might be wondering what a virus is in the first place? That’s an entirely fair question, especially since viruses can get a little funky from a biological perspective. Just so we’re on the same page–yes, these are the little buggers that make us sick and whatnot. But before we get into where they come from we should talk about how they work.
The long short of what a virus does is actually quite simple. It replicates. They essentially just cram themselves into other cells and turn them into virus factories. So they literally hijack other cells, whether they are bacteria floating around in some soup, or cells in your blood. Once they do that, whatever the purpose of the cell before is subjugated, and the cell is now relegated to making more viruses. Once the cell is so full of viruses it’s going to burst, it does burst and viruses spill out everywhere to repeat the process.
Imagine literally exploding because a parasite turned all your organs into other parasites.
Actually, don’t imagine that.
What Are Viruses Made Of?
You’ve probably heard of a handy dandy molecule that contains all the bits that make you who you are. At least physically. You’ve likely seen it as the general symbol for “biology” in TV shows and movies. We’re talking about the iconic double helix structure we call DNA.
We’re not going to break down all the details of DNA because we’re not a biology textbook. But there’s a clump of DNA in the nucleus of a cell (the important center bit). There’s also RNA, which kind of acts as a method to transfer information around in a cell. Cells are very complicated, and it’s kind of nutty that so many of them come together to make a larger being like us. They even have smaller organs called organelles. Science is creative with its naming.
Anyway, viruses typically contain two to three parts: Genes, which are made from either DNA or RNA; a protein sheath that serves to protect the genes; and in some viruses, a cover of fat that surrounds everything. Viruses can take a handful of different shapes, from a helix to something that looks more like a 20-sided die.
Overall, there’s a lot less going on inside a virus than even the most simple cells in your body.
What Makes Something Alive?
Generally, to be alive, something has to carry genetic material, reproduce, and evolve by virtue of natural selection (survival of the fittest). Living things also have to respond to stimuli, if something in the environment changes, a living thing will do something. Even if it’s really dumb, like running away from potential food or running towards danger. Most living things can maintain relative homeostasis as well–loosely this means “same state.” Really this just means the organism can maintain an internal state. You don’t suddenly melt if it gets like a couple degrees hotter.
Most things display order; very, very loosely described as “complex.” Really though, it just means something is more complicated than the sum of its parts. Your cells are really dumb, individually anyway. But together, they make something complicated, able to read this post, maybe type a comment in response, stuff like that. No individual cell has the capacity to even understand what the letter “a” is, yet the gigantic mass of cells that makes you up can learn more than one entire language.
Another example is society. Individually, a single human can’t do much, but together we can create weird drone shipping networks and send ourselves into space. It can be quite inspiring if you don’t look at it too cynically.
Living things are also supposed to develop and grow. There’s not much to explain here, things don’t stay the baby versions of themselves forever. A living thing also metabolizes (basically it takes stuff in and uses it as energy).
Surprisingly, there’s some weirdness to this question where different sources say different things. So there may be some things that we didn’t list but others do. But a living thing must meet all the qualifications, so not meeting even one can disqualify something from being “alive.”
Are Viruses Alive, Then?
Generally speaking, they probably aren’t. Despite the fact that a virus does evolve through natural selection (it’s why you should get vaccinated more than one time in your life, or why you can get the cold more than once), a virus doesn’t really respond to stimuli in the traditional sense, they just kind of bump into other cells and dump their DNA/RNA into them. Though in the most basic sense of the term, they are responding to running into another cell.
There isn’t really any order either. It’s not like the DNA or RNA is doing anything that it otherwise could not by virtue of being lumped together. A virus also doesn’t seek out “food.” Even plants will grow in the direction of the sun (try it, if you put a plant away from sunlight it will grow towards it).
Anyway, the long short is that viruses at best sit on a weird line between being alive and not. But even though they may not be alive, they can definitely still hurt you. So go get vaccinated! It is Flu Season.