And though some microbes make us sick and even kill us, in the long run they have a shared interest in our survival. For these tiny invaders, a dead host is a dead end.
The success of microorganisms is due to their remarkable adaptability. Through natural selection, organisms that are genetically better suited to their surroundings have more offspring and transmit their desirable traits to future generations. This process operates far more efficiently in the microbial world than in people. Humans produce a new generation every 20 years or so; bacteria do it every 20 to 30 minutes, and viruses even faster. Because they reproduce so quickly, microorganisms can assemble in enormous numbers with great variety in their communities. If their environment suddenly changes, the community’s genetic variations make it more likely that some will survive. This gives microbes a huge advantage over humans when it comes to adapting for survival.
There are five major categories of infectious agents: Viruses, bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and helminths.
Viruses are tiny, ranging in size from about 20 to 400 nanometers in diameter (see page 9). Billions can fit on the head of a pin. Some are rod shaped; others are round and 20 sided; and yet others have fanciful forms, with multisided “heads” and cylindrical “tails.”
Viruses are simply packets of nucleic acid, either DNA or RNA, surrounded by a protein shell and sometimes fatty materials called lipids. Outside a living cell, a virus is a dormant particle, lacking the raw materials for reproduction. Only when it enters a host cell does it go into action, hijacking the cell’s metabolic machinery to produce copies of itself that may burst out of infected cells or simply bud off a cell membrane. This lack of self-sufficiency means that viruses cannot be cultured in artificial media for scientific research or vaccine development; they can be grown only in living cells, fertilized eggs, tissue cultures, or bacteria.
Viruses are responsible for a wide range of diseases, including the common cold, measles, chicken pox, genital herpes, and influenza. Many of the emerging infectious diseases, such as AIDS and SARS, are caused by viruses.
Bacteria are 10 to 100 times larger than viruses and are more self-sufficient. These single-celled organisms, generally visible under a low-powered