To be or not to be alive: How recent discoveries challenge the traditional definitions of viruses and life

Stud Hist Philos Biol Biomed Sci. 2016 Oct;59:100-8. doi: 10.1016/j.shpsc.2016.02.013. Epub 2016 Mar 18.


Three major discoveries have recently profoundly modified our perception of the viral world: molecular ecologists have shown that viral particles are more abundant than cells in natural environments; structural biologists have shown that some viruses from the three domains of life, Bacteria, Eukarya and Archaea, are evolutionarily related, and microbiologists have discovered giant viruses that rival with cells in terms of size and gene content. I discuss here the scientific and philosophical impact of these discoveries on the debates over the definition, nature (living or not), and origin of viruses. I suggest that viruses have often been considered non-living, because they are traditionally assimilated to their virions. However, the term virus describes a biological process and should integrate all aspects of the viral reproduction cycle. It is especially important to focus on the intracellular part of this cycle, the virocell, when viral information is actively expressed and reproduced, allowing the emergence of new viral genes. The virocell concept theoretically removes roadblocks that prevent defining viruses as living organisms. However, defining a "living organism" remains challenging, as indicated by the case of organelles that evolved from intracellular bacteria. To bypass this problem, I suggest considering that all biological entities that actively participate in the process of life are living.

Keywords: Bacteriophage; Life definition; Organism; Virocell; Virus.

MeSH terms

  • Biological Evolution*
  • Philosophy
  • Virus Physiological Phenomena*
  • Virus Replication