bacteria and viruses

Mario Vaneechoutte Mario.Vaneechoutte at
Thu Sep 12 10:33:59 EST 1996

Arthur Chandler wrote:
>  A question from a non-biologist (who has been reading Stephen Gould's
> new book, *Full House*). Gould asserts (page 170):
>   "...bacteria lie right next to the left wall of minimal conceivable
> complexity. Life therefore began with a bacterial mode."
>  My questions:
>  1) Are viruses more or less complex than bacteria?
>  2) Are viruses alive?
1. They certainly are. See other replies.
2. Depends on how one defines life of course. According to my definition
viruses are alive: living information is information which is capable of
making copies of an already existing instantiation of itself. Whether
these new instantiations are made by an organisms own machinery or
whether they are put together by the machinery of other organisms,
doesn't really matter. After all a virus carries the necessary
instructions to make other organisms copy it. It is just a kind of
extreme parasitism, directly at the genetic level.

One can disagree with Gould: bacteria are tremendously complex
organisms. Viruses just the same (just consider how the coding for
different proteins has been compressed such that the genes overlap),
although they can be considered as the simplest.
Mario Vaneechoutte
Laboratory Bacteriology & Virology
Blok A, De Pintelaan 185
University Hospital Ghent
Belgium 9000 Ghent
Tel: +32 9 240 36 92
Fax: +32 9 240 36 59
E-mail: Mario.Vaneechoutte at

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