Skip to main content

Virus Origins and the Origin of Life

Part of the Advances in Astrobiology and Biogeophysics book series (ASTROBIO)


Viruses are enigmatic, with scientists debating, often heatedly, about the nature of their existence, such as whether viruses should be categorized as living or non-living. They are not even represented in most conventional trees of life. However, viruses have played a driving role in the co-evolution of life on Earth since its origins. Viruses can serve as molecular fossils, providing a possible glimpse at a pool of genes that may have been present from a time before the Last Universal Common Ancestor (LUCA). The study of virology and the origin of life have often been intertwined. Since the earliest studies of viruses, viruses have been hypothesized to be ancient, possibly anteceding cell-based life. Other hypotheses propose that cell-based life preceded viruses, with viruses “escaping” from cellular life forms. This chapter will introduce viruses and their relationship with the origin of life, including the various proposed origin scenarios involving viruses and virus-like elements.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Buying options

USD   29.95
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • DOI: 10.1007/978-3-030-81039-9_8
  • Chapter length: 21 pages
  • Instant PDF download
  • Readable on all devices
  • Own it forever
  • Exclusive offer for individuals only
  • Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout
USD   109.00
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • ISBN: 978-3-030-81039-9
  • Instant PDF download
  • Readable on all devices
  • Own it forever
  • Exclusive offer for individuals only
  • Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout
Hardcover Book
USD   149.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)
Fig. 8.1
Fig. 8.2
Fig. 8.3


  1. 1.

    D’Herelle was appointed “Professor of Protobiology” at Yale in 1928. While it had originally referred to the study of bacteriophage, interestingly, nowadays protobiology more often refers to the study of the origin of life.

  2. 2.

    This association with disease likely formed an initial bias in the field of virology towards the study of disease-causing viruses infecting humans and other animals and plants of economic importance.

  3. 3.

    An early type of porcelain filter developed in 1884 by Charles Chamberland, who worked with Louis Pasteur.

  4. 4.

    This initiated a distinction between the viruses of prokaryotes and eukaryotes. The prokaryote/eukaryote division divided virology between the study of “bacteriophage” and the study of eukaryotic “viruses”, a division that is still palpable today (Forterre 2010). This distinction was also formed before the discovery of archaea, creating a confusing situation in which many had referred to archaeal viruses as archaeal phage (Abedon and Murray 2013).

  5. 5.

    Interestingly, in his 1963 Nobel lecture, André Lwoff had also referred to the infected cell as being converted into a “virus factory” by the virus (Lwoff 1966).


Download references


The author would like to thank the reviewers for the time it took to check content and provide helpful suggestions for this chapter.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Donald Pan .

Editor information

Editors and Affiliations

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

Copyright information

© 2021 The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Switzerland AG

About this chapter

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this chapter

Pan, D. (2021). Virus Origins and the Origin of Life. In: Neubeck, A., McMahon, S. (eds) Prebiotic Chemistry and the Origin of Life. Advances in Astrobiology and Biogeophysics. Springer, Cham.

Download citation