In an episode of the classic 1950s television comedy The Honeymooners, Brooklyn bus driver Ralph Kramden loudly explains to his wife, Alice, "You know that I know how easy you get the virus." Half a century ago even regular folks like the Kramdens had some knowledge of viruses--as microscopic bringers of disease. Yet it is almost certain that they did not know exactly what a virus was. They were, and are, not alone.
For about 100 years, the scientific community has repeatedly changed its collective mind over what viruses are. First seen as poisons, then as life-forms, then biological chemicals, viruses today are thought of as being in a gray area between living and nonliving: they cannot replicate on their own but can do so in truly living cells and can also affect the behavior of their hosts profoundly. The categorization of viruses as nonliving during much of the modern era of biological science has had an unintended consequence: it has led most researchers to ignore viruses in the study of evolution. Finally, however, scientists are beginning to appreciate viruses as fundamental players in the history of life.
This article was originally published with the title Are Viruses Alive?.