Viral Genetics: How Mutations Impact Pathogenicity


The world is currently facing a pandemic that is threatening global health and economic systems - COVID-19. The virus, believed to have started in a wet market in Wuhan, China, has killed over 3 million people worldwide. This pandemic reminds us of the importance of understanding the basics of how viruses work. As invisible threats to our bodies, viruses can be deadly, causing diseases ranging from the flu to HIV. In this article, I will explain how viruses work, how they infect our bodies, and how our immune system works to fight them off.

What are viruses?

Viruses are minuscule infectious agents that are not considered alive. They are smaller than most bacteria and can only be seen under a microscope. They cannot reproduce on their own but instead rely on a host cell to do so. A virus particle consists of genetic material, either DNA or RNA, surrounded by a protein coat called a capsid. Some viruses have an outer envelope made of lipids that they acquire from the host cell.

How do viruses infect our bodies?

Viruses rely on a host cell to reproduce and infect individuals. They are not living things, and as such, they cannot move or replicate independently. They need to infect a host cell to start reproducing. When a virus enters the body, it attaches itself to a specific type of host cell called a target cell. The target cell can be a liver cell, nerve cell, or a white blood cell. The virus then injects its genetic material, either DNA or RNA, into the host cell.

Once the virus's genetic material is inside the host cell, it takes over and uses the cell's machinery to make more copies of itself. The virus replicates until the host cell bursts, releasing the newly formed viruses into the host's bloodstream, where they can infect other cells.

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How does our immune system fight viruses?

Our immune system is a complex network of cells and tissues that work together to recognize and eliminate any foreign invaders, including viruses. When a virus enters the body, our immune system produces specific proteins called antibodies. Antibodies identify and target the virus, making it easier for immune cells to identify and destroy them. Some immune cells, called T-cells, can kill the virus-infected cells, and others, called B-cells, produce more antibodies.

The immune system is designed to remember the viruses it has encountered in the past, making it easier to fight them off in the future. Vaccines work by introducing harmless versions of the virus into the body, allowing the immune system to build up a defense against the virus without causing illness.

Real-life examples of viruses

Influenza or the flu is a viral infection that affects millions of people worldwide. It is easily spread through coughing, sneezing, and contact with infected surfaces. Symptoms include high fever, cough, sore throat, and body aches. The influenza virus continues to evolve, making it difficult to develop effective vaccines and treatments.

Another example of a virus is HIV, a sexually transmitted infection that attacks the immune system. HIV virus targets a specific type of white blood cell called CD4+ T-cells, which are necessary for fighting infections. Over time, the virus destroys these cells, making individuals more susceptible to infections and diseases.


Viruses continue to be a global threat, causing diseases that range from mild to life-threatening. Although we may not be able to eliminate all viruses, understanding how they work can help us better prepare for and prevent outbreaks. We must continue to invest in research and development to find effective vaccines and treatments for viral infections. Ultimately, education and awareness are the best ways to reduce the spread and impact of viruses on our communities and the world.

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