Virology is the study of viral – submicroscopic, parasitic particles of genetic material contained in a protein coat – and virus-like agents. It focuses on the following aspects of viruses: their structure, classification and evolution, their ways to infect and exploit host cells for reproduction, their interaction with host organism physiology and immunity, the diseases they cause, the techniques to isolate and culture them, and their use in research and therapy. Virology is considered to be a subfield of microbiology or of medicine; but really now it has become specialty unto itself!
A major branch of virology is virus classification. Viruses can be classified according to the host cell they infect: animal viruses, plant viruses, fungal viruses, and bacteriophages (viruses infecting bacterium, which include the most complex viruses). Another classification uses the geometrical shape of their capsid (often a helix or an icosahedron) or the virus's structure (e.g. presence or absence of a lipid envelope). Viruses range in size from about 30 nm to about 450 nm, which means that most of them cannot be seen with light microscopes. The shape and structure of viruses has been studied by electron microscopy, NMR spectroscopy, and X-ray crystallography.
The most useful and most widely used classification system distinguishes viruses according to the type of nucleic acid they use as genetic material and the viral replication method they employ to coax host cells into producing more viruses:
- DNA viruses (divided into double-stranded DNA viruses and single-stranded DNA viruses),
- RNA viruses (divided into positive-sense single-stranded RNA viruses, negative-sense single-stranded RNA viruses and the much less common double-stranded RNA viruses),
- reverse transcribing viruses (double-stranded reverse-transcribing DNA viruses and single-stranded reverse-transcribing RNA viruses including retroviruses).