Because most viruses are extremely well adapted to their host organism, virus structure varies greatly. However, there are some general structural characteristics that all viruses share.

Figure %: General virus structure

All viruses have a capsid or head region that contains its genetic material. The capsid is made of proteins and glycoproteins. Capsid contruction varies greatly among viruses, with most being specialized for a particular virus's host organism. Some viruses, mostly of the type infecting animals, have a membranous envelope surrounding their capsid. This allows viruses to penetrate host cells through membrane fusion. The virus's genetical material rests inside the capsid; that material can be either DNA, RNA, or even in some cases a limited number of enzymes. The type of genetic material a virus contains is used in classification, and is discussed in Virus Classification.

In addition to the head region, some viruses, mostly those that infect bacteria, have a tail region. The tail is an often elaborate protein structure. It aids in binding to the surface of the host cell and in the introduction of virus genetic material to the host cell.

Virus "Life" Cycles

Figure%: Generalized Replication of Viruses

Though the details of virus infection and replication vary greatly with host type, all viruses share 6 basic steps in their replication cycles. These are: 1) attachment; 2) penetration; 3) uncoating; 4) replication; 5) assembly; 6)release. As shown in , the virus must first attach itself to the host cell. This is usually accomplished through special glycoprotiens on the exterior of the capsid, envelope or tail. Next, penetration occurs, either of the whole virus or just the contents of the capsid. If the entire capsid enters, the genetic material must be uncoated to make it available to the cell's replication machinery. Replication of genetic material takes place, as well as the production of capsid and tail proteins. Once all of the necessary parts have been replicated, individual virus particles are assembled and released. Release often takes place in a destructive manner, bursting and killing the host cell.

Some viruses have a slightly more complicated replication cycle involving lytic and lysogenic phases. The lytic phase is similar to that described above, with virus particles infecting and being replicated. In the lysogenic phase, however, viral genetic material that has entered the host cell becomes incorportated in the cell and lies dormant. It is passed on to the progeny of the infected cells. Eventually, the lytic phase will start again, and cells that were never infected themselves, but carry the viral genetic material will begin to produce new virus particles.