What are DNA Viruses?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 11 August 2019
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DNA viruses are infectious organisms with a genetic structure comprised of DNA, as opposed to RNA. Some famous examples include papilloma viruses, responsible for causing warts, and the pox family, including smallpox. There are several types of DNA virus, classified on the basis of being single or double-stranded, and they are widely known infectious organisms found all over the world. Treating infections with these viruses depends on finding medications to interrupt the process of viral replication and spread.

The virus enters cells and hijacks them, forcing them to produce viral material. When a virus with a single strand of DNA enters a cell, it usually develops a second strand as part of the process of taking over the cell. Some viruses utilize an enzyme called reverse transcriptase to convert their DNA to RNA for the purpose of making blueprints. The cell uses the viral RNA to produce new DNA, not realizing that it is actually creating material on behalf of the virus.

Some examples with two strands include adenoviruses, herpesviruses, and poxes. Parvo and coliphages are single-stranded DNA viruses. Hepatitis B falls into the class of reverse transcriptase DNA viruses. These organisms contrast with RNA viruses, which have no DNA in their genetic material. Coronavirus, measles, and rotaviruses are all RNA viruses.


People can combat DNA viruses in several ways. One method is vaccination, where patients receive an injection with a small amount of deactivated or weakened virus. The immune system learns to recognize the virus and in the event of an exposure, it will kill the organisms before they have a chance to start spreading through the body. One problem confronting vaccine developers is the tendency of infectious organisms to mutate. A moving target is difficult to track, and impossible to use in a vaccine because the inoculation will only protect the subject against one strain.

Another option for treating DNA viruses is to use medications to block viral replication in some way. Researchers study the viral life cycle to identify vulnerable points for attack with the goal of developing drugs to hit the virus before it can enter or take over cells. This process can be painstaking. Studying viruses is especially challenging because of their small size. Scientists need special equipment to even see them, let alone conduct examinations to determine the structure of their DNA and the composition of their external layers, known as envelopes. All of this information is necessary to develop effective antiviral drugs.


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