The Complex Social Lives of Viruses

The original version of this story appeared in Quanta Magazine.

Ever since viruses came to light in the late 1800s, scientists have set them apart from the rest of life. Viruses were far smaller than cells, and inside their protein shells they carried little more than genes. They could not grow, copy their own genes, or do much of anything. Researchers assumed that each virus was a solitary particle drifting alone through the world, able to replicate only if it happened to bump into the right cell that could take it in.

This simplicity was what attracted many scientists to viruses in the first place, said Marco Vignuzzi, a virologist at the Singapore Agency for Science, Research and Technology Infectious Diseases Labs. “We were trying to be reductionist.”

That reductionism paid off. Studies on viruses were crucial to the birth of modern biology. Lacking the complexity of cells, they revealed fundamental rules about how genes work. But viral reductionism came at a cost, Vignuzzi said: By assuming viruses are simple, you blind yourself to the possibility that they might be complicated in ways you don’t know about yet.

For example, if you think of viruses as isolated packages of genes, it would be absurd to imagine them having a social life. But Vignuzzi and a new school of like-minded virologists don’t think it’s absurd at all. In recent decades, they have discovered some strange features of viruses that don’t make sense if viruses are lonely particles. They instead are uncovering a marvelously complex social world of viruses. These sociovirologists, as the researchers sometimes call themselves, believe that viruses make sense only as members of a community.

Granted, the social lives of viruses aren’t quite like those of other species. Viruses don’t post selfies to social media, volunteer at food banks, or commit identity theft like humans do. They don’t fight with allies to dominate a troop like baboons; they don’t collect nectar to feed their queen like honeybees; they don’t even congeal into slimy mats for their common defense like some bacteria do. Nevertheless, sociovirologists believe that viruses do cheat, cooperate, and interact in other ways with their fellow viruses.

The field of sociovirology is still young and small. The first conference dedicated to the social life of viruses took place in 2022, and the second will take place this June. A grand total of 50 people will be in attendance. Still, sociovirologists argue that the implications of their new field could be profound. Diseases like influenza don’t make sense if we think of viruses in isolation from one another. And if we can decipher the social life of viruses, we might be able to exploit it to fight back against the diseases some of them create.

Under Our Noses

Some of the most important evidence for the social life of viruses has been sitting in plain view for nearly a century. After the discovery of the influenza virus in the early 1930s, scientists figured out how to grow stocks of the virus by injecting it into a chicken egg and letting it multiply inside. The researchers could then use the new viruses to infect lab animals for research or inject them into new eggs to keep growing new viruses.

In the late 1940s, the Danish virologist Preben von Magnus was growing viruses when he noticed something odd. Many of the viruses produced in one egg could not replicate when he injected them into another. By the third cycle of transmission, only one in 10,000 viruses could still replicate. But in the cycles that followed, the defective viruses became rarer and the replicating ones bounced back. Von Magnus suspected that the viruses that couldn’t replicate had not finished developing, and so he called them “incomplete.”