Carl Zimmer in the New York Times:
The current outbreak shows how complex and mysterious the evolution of viruses is. That complexity and mystery are all the more remarkable because a virus is life reduced to its essentials. A human influenza virus, for example, is a protein shell measuring about five-millionths of an inch across, with 10 genes inside. (We have about 20,000.)
Some viruses use DNA, like we do, to encode their genes. Others, like the influenza virus, use single-strand RNA. But viruses all have one thing in common, said Roland Wolkowicz, a molecular virologist at San Diego State University: they all reproduce by disintegrating and then reforming.
A human flu virus, for example, latches onto a cell in the lining of the nose or throat. It manipulates a receptor on the cell so that the cell engulfs it, whereupon the virus’s genes are released from its protein shell. The host cell begins making genes and proteins that spontaneously assemble into new viruses. “No other entity out there is able to do that,” Dr. Wolkowicz said. “To me, this is what defines a virus.”
The sheer number of viruses on Earth is beyond our ability to imagine. “In a small drop of water there are a billion viruses,” Dr. Wolkowicz said. Virologists have estimated that there are a million trillion trillion viruses in the world’s oceans.