Investigating the Concept and Origin of Viruses

Trends Microbiol. 2020 Dec;28(12):959-967. doi: 10.1016/j.tim.2020.08.003.


The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has piqued public interest in the properties, evolution, and emergence of viruses. Here, we discuss how these basic questions have surprisingly remained disputed despite being increasingly within the reach of scientific analysis. We review recent data-driven efforts that shed light into the origin and evolution of viruses and explain factors that resist the widespread acceptance of new views and insights. We propose a new definition of viruses that is not restricted to the presence or absence of any genetic or physical feature, detail a scenario for how viruses likely originated from ancient cells, and explain technical and conceptual biases that limit our understanding of virus evolution. We note that the philosophical aspects of virus evolution also impact the way we might prepare for future outbreaks.

Keywords: COVID-19; virion; virus definition; virus evolution; virus origins; virus-specific genes.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • COVID-19 / epidemiology
  • COVID-19 / genetics*
  • COVID-19 / virology*
  • Evolution, Molecular
  • Humans
  • Pandemics
  • Viral Proteins / genetics


  • Viral Proteins