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What is Viral Replication?

By Adrien-Luc Sanders
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Viral replication refers to the process by which a virus reproduces itself within a living organism. This generally involves turning infected cells into virus factories, which manufacture copies of the virus's genetic code and expel them to spread into the host body. This turns the infected body against itself, using its own cells as tools of mass production and infection.

Once a virus infects the host body, it targets different types of living cells, depending on its nature. The virus begins by attaching itself to a vulnerable cell, then penetrating its surface, or in some other way infusing itself into the primary substance of the host cell. Different viral types have different ways of gaining entry into the cellular body or fusing themselves with the cellular wall, but generally the process involves compromising the cell's integrity. At this point the viral replication process ensues, in which the virus takes over the cell's own reproductive functions and reprograms it to create copies of the virus's DNA or RNA. The viral replication process continues until the cell bursts in a stage called shedding, releasing multiple duplicates of the original virus into the host body. Each copy targets more susceptible cells, attaches, and begins the replication process anew.

The stages of replication vary for different types of viruses, such as the diverse combinations of double-stranded and single-stranded, positive or negative, DNA or RNA viruses. Many types require specific conditions within a host cell before viral replication can begin. Some are capable of replicating despite the host cell's state, making them more virulent and more dangerous.

Other kinds of viruses can only replicate in certain types of cells, while some can enter cells, replicate for a time, and then remain dormant within the cell for unspecified periods. This dormant period is called latency, and it can last until a triggering factor reactivates the virus and causes it to once more begin reproducing in the host cell.

The study of viral replication has been key to understanding virulent diseases, such as herpes and HIV-AIDS. Viral latency in HIV causes it to insert itself into key areas of the host cell's nucleus, making it a nearly inseparable part of the cell's normal replication process. Understanding the viral reproduction cycle and methodology allows researchers to propose theories on extracting the virus, preventing the conversion of host DNA into viral DNA, or preventing it from penetrating the host cell to begin the infection process.

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Discussion Comments
By Malka — On Sep 07, 2011

@ahain - I'm with you on this one. Creepy. Especially the part about how your own cells burst and spew viral cells out when they've built up enough inside.

It reminds me of a cellular version of the Alien movies' face hugging larvae that plant alien babies in people and later have the alien babies come bursting out of people's chests. I'm sure if the other cells could be horrified, they would.

Do viruses reproduce in any way without the help of a host body's stolen cells, or is this the way they always do it? I'd imagine anybody whose body had a reduced ability to replenish their own cell supply would be harder for a virus to replicate in, if they just reproduce this way.

On the other hand, if the virus took some of their few remaining cell-making cells then the poor person would be left with a dangerously low amount for replenishing their own systems. I guess in the end the virus will still win.

By seHiro — On Sep 06, 2011

Hmm...the article says that they're studying the way viruses work in diseases like viral herpes and HIV to try and come up with a cure or better prevention. What if they just made a virus that would hijack the same cells the HIV or herpes had already hijacked, effectively taking back over?

The cells the diseases take over still have full production capabilities, they're just producing the wrong thing. If we could figure out how the virus cells "knew" which things to "tell" the hijacked cells to make, we could make our own "good guy" virus to cancel out HIV. Think outside the box, people -- sometimes you need a virus to fight a virus!

By SkittisH — On Sep 05, 2011

@ahain - Parasitic is exactly the word. Virus cells *are* parasites, we just don't call them that since if you say "human parasites" people inevitably think of intestinal worms and things like that.

Personally I'm too fascinated by the way viruses work to be disgusted. When you stop and think about it, isn't it just astounding that these foreign cells have evolved to so perfectly hijack our own body's cell-making functions and use them to reproduce?

They do it perfectly and know exactly what to do as soon as they're born to repeat the process in more of your cells. This kind of behavior seems like genetic memory to me for the cells; I don't think single-cell organisms can have instincts, after all.

Whatever makes them do it, it's amazing. If we could create a virus that hijacked our cells and used their repairing power to make, say, stem cells, that could be the secret of eternal youth right there. Just food for thought!

By ahain — On Sep 04, 2011

Eww, the way the article puts it, getting a virus sounds really nasty! I knew that human viruses would reproduce themselves to populate the body, but I wasn't aware that they used your own cells to do it. I always figured they split into two virus cells from one (what was the word for that again?) and so on and so forth until there were tons of them.

A virus cell using your body's own cells' reproductive abilities is a double whammy. Not only does it give you more virus cells to deal with, but you're losing some of the cells you usually use to make new cells of your own and repair/replenish you body's supplies of them!

That means, in a very literal kind of way, viruses are weakening your blood while strengthening themselves. How...creepy and parasitic of them.

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