Department of Energy Argonne National Laboratory Office of Science NEWTON's Homepage NEWTON's Homepage
NEWTON, Ask A Scientist!
NEWTON Home Page NEWTON Teachers Visit Our Archives Ask A Question How To Ask A Question Question of the Week Our Expert Scientists Volunteer at NEWTON! Frequently Asked Questions Referencing NEWTON About NEWTON About Ask A Scientist Education At Argonne Virus and Host Cells
Name: Anonymous
Status: Student
Age: N/A
Location: N/A
Country: N/A
Date: N/A 

Hello. If a virus does not come into contact with its host cell, can it die? If so how long would it take for this to occur. For example if the HIV virus did not come into contact with its host cell (a lymphocyte) would it die, and if so how long would it take?

One of the treatments for HIV is to "plug" the receptor sites on the host cell where they grab on, or to fool the HIV into plugging into a fake HIV molecule. It is not probable that if these treatments were not given that the virus would not find a cell because the virus is in such high numbers.


Since a virus is technically not a living organism, it can't die. Scientists have decided that to be considered a living organism, something must have 5 qualities: 1) be made of one or more cells, 2) have a metabolism (i.e., reactions that break down food molecules, make proteins, etc.), 3) grow and develop, 4) reproduce, and 5) respond to stimuli. A virus particle is basically a protein shell of some kind that houses a bit of nucleic acid (either DNA or RNA, depending on the virus), and maybe a few enzymes that will be active in the infected cell. Picture a miniature syringe and hypodermic needle, filled with DNA, and you have a pretty good image of a virus. So it's not living to begin with.

That being said, let's ask, does a virus ever lose the ability to infect cells, which is really what your question was getting at. The answer is yes, although the length of time this can take can vary greatly. All DNA and protein is susceptible to damage from the environment; if not repaired, the information encoded in the DNA can be lost, and proteins can lose their ability to function. Your cells repair damaged DNA and replace many (but not all) damaged or old proteins. A virus stored in a test tube for months or years can't do this, so _eventually_ it will lose its ability to infect. The time required for this depends largely on environmental conditions, e.g., it will happen faster at room temperature than if stored in the refrigerator.

Viruses are strange particles that exist in the gray area between life and non-life. Here's food for thought: While not living organisms, they DO evolve, meaning they accumulate random mutations that either help or hinder the next generation of viruses. Of course, to get the next generation, they need to infect a cell and use its machinery to make more viruses.

Paul Mahoney, Ph.D.

Click here to return to the Molecular Biology Archives

NEWTON is an electronic community for Science, Math, and Computer Science K-12 Educators, sponsored and operated by Argonne National Laboratory's Educational Programs, Andrew Skipor, Ph.D., Head of Educational Programs.

For assistance with NEWTON contact a System Operator (, or at Argonne's Educational Programs

Educational Programs
Building 360
9700 S. Cass Ave.
Argonne, Illinois
60439-4845, USA
Update: June 2012
Weclome To Newton

Argonne National Laboratory