, Volume 40, Issue 2, pp 151-160,
Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.
Date: 03 Mar 2010

Defining Life: The Virus Viewpoint


Are viruses alive? Until very recently, answering this question was often negative and viruses were not considered in discussions on the origin and definition of life. This situation is rapidly changing, following several discoveries that have modified our vision of viruses. It has been recognized that viruses have played (and still play) a major innovative role in the evolution of cellular organisms. New definitions of viruses have been proposed and their position in the universal tree of life is actively discussed. Viruses are no more confused with their virions, but can be viewed as complex living entities that transform the infected cell into a novel organism—the virus—producing virions. I suggest here to define life (an historical process) as the mode of existence of ribosome encoding organisms (cells) and capsid encoding organisms (viruses) and their ancestors. I propose to define an organism as an ensemble of integrated organs (molecular or cellular) producing individuals evolving through natural selection. The origin of life on our planet would correspond to the establishment of the first organism corresponding to this definition.