Are viruses living organisms?

rwilson rwilson at panda.uchc.edu
Wed Dec 6 14:52:38 EST 1995


   Viruses are certainly NOT living things.  A virus could more
accuratly be described as a 'piece' of a living thing that can 'break
off' and rejoin with a living thing, or, as information that is
expressed only in the context of a living thing.  Computer viruses are
appropriatly named; a computer virus is a program that takes over and
subverts the function of a computer.  A virus does the same thing to a
cell but a virus is no more a living thing than a computer virus is a
computer.  
  When I was a grad student at the U. of Arizona I taught a freshman
bio lab and I'd discuss this idea with my students this way;  I'd ask
them: "what part of a cell makes it alive"? Most would say, "the
nucleus".  But a nucleus isolated in a test tube isn't alive even
though it fullfills all the requirements that many people believe
define a virus as alive: it contains genetic information and can
replicate itself when its inside a cell. In fact, there is no part of a
cell that can be removed and called 'alive', thats why cells are
defined as the fundamental building block of life.  All the parts of a
cell function together to create life.
   When a virus is outside of a cell its as dead as a rock and the
'information' inside it has no 'meaning', things have 'meaning' only
when they can be read.  When a virus is inside of a cell it is part of
that living thing ie. ,it participates in the life of the cell but it
is no more an independant living thing than the nucleus or the
ribosomes are independant living things.



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