Are viruses alive?

The question of whether viruses are living or not always provokes lively discussion. On TWiV 59 we decided to take an informal poll of our listeners on this issue. Let’s open up the poll to readers of virology blog.

This survey had been online since November 2009 and had collected several thousand responses. SurveyMonkey decided to delete all of those, so we are starting over as of January 2013, using a different survey site.

As of November 2013, the second survey site decided to charge users and simply deleted our data without asking. I’m leaving this page up until I find another survey site, mainly because there are quite a few comments below that I don’t want to lose.

In January 2014 I added a new poll. Let’s see how this fares.

[yop_poll id=”1″]

226 thoughts on “Are viruses alive?”

  1. Funny! Why Philosophise? You are living! So Viruses are! Simple. However, We have to thank God, our creator who really cares for all of us. Because our knowledge about viruses, even ourselves for that matter, is so tiny doesn’t mean that viruses are not helping our planet to servive. Who knows, one day we may lough at our current understanding of viruses and shift our complete paradigm!

  2. I wanted to say no because that’s the direction I felt that we were pulled by the text and the class but viruses are allot more than just little puzzles pieces that conveniently fit with living cells to reproduce. Without anthropomorphizing, Viruses reproduce, have a genome, and interact with cells through various complex biochemical processes. Viruses are allot more complicated a lattice of atoms interacting with each other.

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  4. Random D'Foliant

    By managing the boundaries of our definition of ‘life’ or ‘alive’, we manipulate the answer(s).

    The core question to me, an untrained person, is, “Animate or inanimate?” If a virus does something, then that’s an answer. If the virus’ ‘activities’ are merely serendipitous chemical interactions like water contacting sulfur, then that’s an answer.

    I hope to learn enough in this course to join this discussion.

  5. Viruses are most certainly living. A virus that does not have living characteristics is classified as a virion, meaning that it does not display characteristics of a living being; it is completely dormant. A virion ≠ a virus. Therefore viruses are living.

    Viruses = Living
    Virion (a form of virus, but not a virus) = Not living

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  7. Philippe Le Mercier

    It’s a fascinating question but there is no scientific answer, because it’s more about philosophy and all depends on what is “life”.
    In the past century the definition of life has been reforged hundred times to fit with different belief that people have.
    And like all philosophical debate, everybody can argue for nights without been able to convince each other.

  8. I just think anything that has the capacity to evolve is not dead. This would include satellite RNAs and viroids also.

  9. Viruses can’t do nothing without the host cells, no chemical reaction. But once it interacts with host cells, it infects them by couple of sequences of chemical reaction although it’s passive. I think it’s good to conclude both alive or not.

  10. Try to think of any other example of something that can go from living, to non-living, to living again. For pretty much any other example they can only go from living to non-living.

    That has some pretty big significance, like finding general relativity doesn’t apply to big and small alike. That is why it is important to classify if it is indeed alive or not, because if it is alive then it would suggest we need to rework our definition of a living specimen.

  11. So the elementary bodies of Chlamydia are not alive? Never mind other bacterial, protozoan and fungal obligate parasites. These, and viruses, adapt and replicate. No, they are not fluffy dogs or organisms that have a consciousness, but they are as alive as you and I, and have a capacity for survival that complex organisms do not have.

  12. to quote Transformers’ Wheelie: “not quite alive, but, well, also not dead- your life is so confusing, Hardhead!

  13. Lol so the definition isn’t very helpful:

    having life; living; existing; not dead or lifeless.
    living (used for emphasis): the proudest man alive.
    in a state of action; in force or operation; active: to keep hope alive.
    full of energy and spirit; lively: Grandmother’s more alive than most of her contemporaries.
    having the quality of life; vivid; vibrant: The room was alive with color.

  14. They are death till they detect an organism with DNA. The interesting thing is that how they can detect them when they are death.

  15. If their goal is to reproduce themselves or in other words to transmit their genetic material, then they are alive.

  16. Biologically, there are eight things that something must do to be considered alive, move, reproduce, sense, grow, respirate, excrete, require nutrition, and control,to some extent, internal conditions. Viruses cannot reproduce on their own, they require other cells. They are sort of half alive.

  17. they don’t have the ability to survive on their own, they only can reproduce with the help of a host whereas every other living creature can survive independtantly.

  18. The definition of life is any self-replicating organism which can sustain itself without the need of any intervention. A virus can replicate and sustain itself, but only by using DNA of another cell, so it is half-alive.

  19. A man can be physically vigorous, yet spiritually and morally dead. On the other hand, one may have left the rotting corpse, yet be spiritually vigorous. Whither goest thy wandering ghost, when it leaveth it’s wan and withering host”? All things are alive, including the vibrating atoms that make up the virus and the minerals of the planets, the solar radiation, the water etc. If we need them to live, how can they give what they don’t have? Since God is the Ever-Living Life-Giver, life exists at all levels, but is it cognizant?

  20. They reproduce, they use RNA, they consume energy and affect their environments. How can one suppose they are not alive?

  21. Maybe, just maybe, the definition of alive should be that if there is a system of physics/chemical reactions within a ‘body’, we should classify that as being ‘alive’. Although the definition would have to be more strictly worded for the sake of laboratories everywhere not being classified as living beings.

  22. I’d say something in between because the virus seems to have an objective, they know what to do, the virus has to be alive somehow it has survived since space began, they adapt like bacteria to survive the antibodies, they have to adapt to destroy bacterias defense protein they use to disable viruses, a virus is alive it has sort of its own food source it eats up the proteins in the cell they infect to make more so it has a food source,a way to reproduce, adapt to suit their environment and defend themselves, aand last but not least living space ( inside the cell). How is that not considered alive?

    I am 13 so this is pretty good for someone in 7th grade don’t judge me please.

  23. Another thing I forgot to mention is that the RNA seems to make it have an extreme desire to infect hosts like spiritgifts said it’s like a zombie it does make sense the RNA is a remnant of an animal

  24. Does soil replicate? Yes and no yes when dead things deteriorate they become the ground you stand on,no it can’t make itself by itself. It’s not alive either and it replicates

  25. Wrong it is either DNA/RNA, must be able to reproduce, a food source, a living space, growth and development, Gas exchange, and last but not least a cell.

  26. The virus does NOT intentionally try to kill you it is merely programmed to infect not kill but infect they are bust doing what they were programmed to the virus itself doesn’t kill you it is either the DNA/RNA that does the virus is merely the DNA/RNAs Host body that is controlled by it.

  27. No they don’t the DNA/RNA itself evolves every time the cell copies it and every time it copies it the DNA/RNA is slightly different

  28. I believe viruses are:
    1.) in their own category just like living and non-living organisms
    2.) alive because they have some of the seven characters of life
    3.) alive due to their vulnerability to other viruses

    They’re just so complex and mysterious! They must be alive just like us.

  29. I’m only in 9th grade in high school. My credibility on the subject may not be as high as others but I believe that if one were to find out the true answer, life would be defined beforehand. I think the first thing we should be discussing is how we can come to terms on a definition of life before we can define if something is even “living” or not. The question is indeed tough, and with differing opinions on life’s definition, I believe we will never find out the answer.

  30. A virus is a small infectious agent that replicates only inside the living cells of other organisms. Viruses can infect all types of life forms, from animals and plants to bacteria and archaea. Viruses are infectious pathogens that cause serious diseases & major threats for global public health, such as influenza, hepatitis, & AIDS.

    A virus antigen is a toxin or other substance given off by a virus which causes an immune response in its host. A viral protein is an antigen specified by the viral genome that can be detected by a specific immunological response.

    More information here:

  31. summarizing from the examples of organs and mitochondria, it makes me think the definition of life should include this part: it needs to depend/feed on something to exist.

  32. NormalHuman12

    I totally agree with your argument, but the complexity of its physical/chemical interactions are very simple. Viruses are nothing more than hereditary material and DNA in a protein case. But like what you said before, what is life anyways? Some people define life through five characteristics, some define it as self-awareness, and some define it as ability to pass genetics through generations. Either way, viruses are pretty much half alive and half dead.

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  34. then the damn rocks are alive.because they are pretty much physical/chemical system.oh wait.the whole universe is alive by your either you come up with a better idea.or just forget it

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