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Q & A: Are viruses living?

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Most recent answer: 02/06/2014
Q:
Are viruses living? Why?
- Erin (age 12)
Tuscon, Arizona, United States
A:

We can tell you a little about what a more-or-less typical virus does. It consists of some DNA and protein. In a cell, the DNA is copied and makes copies of the proteins by borrowing the parts of the cell that do those for the cell's own DNA. Other types of viruses have RNA rather than DNA. Some insert DNA into the cell's own DNA. And so forth, with a fascinating variety of behaviors. You can find a nice summary here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virus.

What we haven't done is answer whether a virus is "living". The reason is that even when someone is done describing all the things a virus does, to answer that they also would have to say what they mean by "living". People use the word "living" in slightly different ways, so some like to say that viruses are alive and some don't like to say that. Many of us don't care which way it's said. So far as we know, the viruses also don't care.

Mike W.


(published on 02/06/2014)

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