Virus classification

Viral envelope Riboviria Virus

Virus classification is the process of naming viruses and placing them into a taxonomic system similar to the classification systems used for cellular organisms.

Viruses are mainly classified by phenotypic characteristics, such as morphology, nucleic acid type, mode of replication, host organisms, and the type of disease they cause. The formal taxonomic classification of viruses is the responsibility of the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV) system, although the Baltimore classification system can be used to place viruses into one of seven groups based on their manner of mRNA synthesis. Specific naming conventions and further classification guidelines are set out by the ICTV.

A catalogue of all the world's known viruses has been proposed and, in 2013, some preliminary efforts were underway.[1]

Virus species definition

Species form the basis for any biological classification system. Before 1982, it was thought that viruses could not be made to fit Ernst Mayr's reproductive concept of species, and so were not amenable to such treatment. In 1982, the ICTV started to define a species as "a cluster of strains" with unique identifying qualities. In 1991, the more specific principle that a virus species is a polythetic class of viruses that constitutes a replicating lineage and occupies a particular ecological niche was adopted.[2]

In July 2013, the ICTV definition of species changed to state: "A species is a monophyletic group of viruses whose properties can be distinguished from those of other species by multiple criteria."[3] Viruses are real physical entities produced by biological evolution and genetics, whereas virus species and higher taxa are abstract concepts produced by rational thought and logic. The virus/species relationship thus represents the front line of the interface between biology and logic.[4]

The actual criteria used vary by the taxon, and can be inconsistent (arbitrary similarity thresholds) or unrelated to lineage (geography) at times.[5] The matter is, for many, not yet settled.[2]

ICTV classification

Comparison 1991 and 2019 virus taxonomy by ICTV

The International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses began to devise and implement rules for the naming and classification of viruses early in the 1970s, an effort that continues to the present. The ICTV is the only body charged by the International Union of Microbiological Societies with the task of developing, refining, and maintaining a universal virus taxonomy.[6] The system shares many features with the classification system of cellular organisms, such as taxon structure. However, some differences exist, such as the universal use of italics for all taxonomic names, unlike in the International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants and International Code of Zoological Nomenclature.[7]

Viral classification starts at the level of realm and continues as follows, with the taxonomic suffixes in parentheses:[7]

Realm (-viria)
Subrealm (-vira)
Kingdom (-virae)
Subkingdom (-virites)
Phylum (-viricota)
Subphylum (-viricotina)
Class (-viricetes)
Subclass (-viricetidae)
Order (-virales)
Suborder (-virineae)
Family (-viridae)
Subfamily (-virinae)
Genus (-virus)
Subgenus (-virus)

Unlike the system of binomial nomenclature adopted in cellular species, there is currently no standardized form for virus species names. At present, the ICTV mandates that a species name must contain as few words as possible while remaining distinct, and must not only contain the word virus and the host name.[8] Species names often take the form of [Disease] virus, particularly for higher plants and animals. In 2019, the ICTV published a proposal to adopt a more formalized system of binomial nomenclature for virus species names, to be voted on in 2020.[9] However, some virologists later objected to the potential naming system change, arguing that the debate came while many in the field were preoccupied due to the COVID-19 Pandemic.[10]

As of 2019, all levels of taxa except subrealm, subkingdom, and subclass are used. Four realms, one incertae sedis order, 24 incertae sedis families, and three incertae sedis genera are recognized:[11]

Realms: Duplodnaviria, Monodnaviria, Riboviria, and Varidnaviria

incertae sedis order: Ligamenvirales

incertae sedis families:

incertae sedis genera: Deltavirus, Dinodnavirus, Rhizidiovirus

Structure-based virus classification

It has been suggested that similarity in virion assembly and structure observed for certain viral groups infecting hosts from different domains of life (e.g., bacterial tectiviruses and eukaryotic adenoviruses or prokaryotic Caudovirales and eukaryotic herpesviruses) reflects an evolutionary relationship between these viruses.[12] Therefore, structural relationship between viruses has been suggested to be used as a basis for defining higher-level taxa – structure-based viral lineages – that could complement the existing ICTV classification scheme.[13]

Baltimore classification

The Baltimore Classification of viruses is based on the method of viral mRNA synthesis

Baltimore classification (first defined in 1971) is a classification system that places viruses into one of seven groups depending on a combination of their nucleic acid (DNA or RNA), strandedness (single-stranded or double-stranded), sense, and method of replication. Named after David Baltimore, a Nobel Prize-winning biologist, these groups are designated by Roman numerals. Other classifications are determined by the disease caused by the virus or its morphology, neither of which are satisfactory due to different viruses either causing the same disease or looking very similar. In addition, viral structures are often difficult to determine under the microscope. Classifying viruses according to their genome means that those in a given category will all behave in a similar fashion, offering some indication of how to proceed with further research. Viruses can be placed in one of the seven following groups:[14]

Visualization of the 7 groups of virus according to the Baltimore Classification

DNA viruses

Viruses with a DNA genome, except for the DNA reverse transcribing viruses, are members of three of the four recognized viral realms: Duplodnaviria, Monodnaviria, and Varidnaviria. But the incertae sedis order Ligamenvirales, and many other incertae sedis families and genera, are also used to classify DNA viruses. The domains Duplodnaviria and Varidnaviria consist of double-stranded DNA viruses; other double-stranded DNA viruses are incertae sedis. The domain Monodnaviria consists of single-stranded DNA viruses that generally encode a HUH endonuclease; other single-stranded DNA viruses are incertae sedis.[11]

Examples of DNA viruses
Virus family Examples (common names) Virion
Nucleic acid type Group
1. Adenoviridae Canine hepatitis virus, Some types of the common cold Naked Icosahedral ds I
2. Papovaviridae JC virus, HPV Naked Icosahedral ds circular I
3. Parvoviridae Human parvovirus B19, canine parvovirus Naked Icosahedral ss II
4. Herpesviridae Herpes simplex virus, varicella-zoster virus, cytomegalovirus, Epstein–Barr virus Enveloped Icosahedral ds I
5. Poxviridae Smallpox virus, cowpox, myxoma virus, monkeypox, vaccinia virus Complex coats Complex ds I
6. Anelloviridae Torque teno virus Naked Icosahedral ss circular II
7. Pleolipoviridae HHPV1, HRPV1 Enveloped ss/ds linear/circular I/II

RNA viruses

All viruses that have an RNA genome, and that encode an RNA-dependent RNA polymerase (RdRp), are members of the kingdom Orthornavirae, within the realm Riboviria.[15]

Examples of RNA viruses
Virus Family Examples (common names) Capsid
Nucleic acid type Group
1. Reoviridae Reovirus, rotavirus Naked Icosahedral ds III
2. Picornaviridae Enterovirus, rhinovirus, hepatovirus, cardiovirus, aphthovirus, poliovirus, parechovirus, erbovirus, kobuvirus, teschovirus, coxsackie Naked Icosahedral ss IV
3. Caliciviridae Norwalk virus Naked Icosahedral ss IV
4. Togaviridae Eastern equine encephalitis Enveloped Icosahedral ss IV
5. Arenaviridae Lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus, Lassa fever Enveloped Complex ss(-) V
6. Flaviviridae Dengue virus, hepatitis C virus, yellow fever virus, Zika virus Enveloped Icosahedral ss IV
7. Orthomyxoviridae Influenzavirus A, influenzavirus B, influenzavirus C, isavirus, thogotovirus Enveloped Helical ss(-) V
8. Paramyxoviridae Measles virus, mumps virus, respiratory syncytial virus, Rinderpest virus, canine distemper virus Enveloped Helical ss(-) V
9. Bunyaviridae California encephalitis virus, Sin nombre virus Enveloped Helical ss(-) V
10. Rhabdoviridae Rabies virus, Vesicular stomatitis Enveloped Helical ss(-) V
11. Filoviridae Ebola virus, Marburg virus Enveloped Helical ss(-) V
12. Coronaviridae SARS-CoV-2, MERS Enveloped Helical ss IV
13. Astroviridae Astrovirus Naked Icosahedral ss IV
14. Bornaviridae Borna disease virus Enveloped Helical ss(-) V
15. Arteriviridae Arterivirus, equine arteritis virus Enveloped Icosahedral ss IV
16. Hepeviridae Hepatitis E virus Naked Icosahedral ss IV

Reverse transcribing viruses

All viruses that encode a reverse transcriptase (also known as RT or RNA-dependent DNA polymerase) are members of the class Revtraviricetes, within the phylum Arterviricota, kingdom Pararnavirae, and realm Riboviria. The class Blubervirales contains the single family Hepadnaviridae of DNA RT (reverse transcribing) viruses; all other RT viruses are members of the class Ortervirales.[16]

Examples of reverse transcribing viruses
Virus Family Examples (common names) Capsid
Nucleic acid type Group
1. Retroviridae HIV Enveloped dimer RNA VI
2. Caulimoviridae Caulimovirus, Cacao swollen-shoot virus (CSSV) Naked VII
3. Hepadnaviridae Hepatitis B virus Enveloped Icosahedral circular, partially ds VII

Holmes classification

Holmes (1948) used Carl Linnaeus's system of binomial nomenclature to classify viruses into 3 groups under one order, Virales. They are placed as follows:

LHT System of Virus Classification

The LHT System of Virus Classification is based on chemical and physical characters like nucleic acid (DNA or RNA), symmetry (helical or icosahedral or complex), presence of envelope, diameter of capsid, number of capsomers.[17] This classification was approved by the Provisional Committee on Nomenclature of Virus (PNVC) of the International Association of Microbiological Societies (1962).[citation needed] It is as follows:

  • Subphylum Deoxyvira (DNA viruses)
  • Class Deoxybinala (dual symmetry)
  • Order Urovirales
  • Family Phagoviridae
  • Class Deoxyhelica (helical symmetry)
  • Order Chitovirales
  • Family Poxviridae
  • Class Deoxycubica (cubical symmetry)
  • Order Peplovirales
  • Family Herpesviridae (162 capsomeres)
  • Order Haplovirales (no envelope)
  • Family Iridoviridae (812 capsomeres)
  • Family Adenoviridae (252 capsomeres)
  • Family Papiloviridae (72 capsomeres)
  • Family Paroviridae (32 capsomeres)
  • Family Microviridae (12 capsomeres)
  • Subphylum Ribovira (RNA viruses)
  • Class Ribocubica
  • Order Togovirales
  • Family Arboviridae
  • Order Tymovirales
  • Family Napoviridae
  • Family Reoviridae
  • Class Ribohelica
  • Order Sagovirales
  • Family Stomataviridae
  • Family Paramyxoviridae
  • Family Myxoviridae
  • Order Rhabdovirales
  • Suborder Flexiviridales
  • Family Mesoviridae
  • Family Peptoviridae
  • Suborder Rigidovirales
  • Family Pachyviridae
  • Family Protoviridae
  • Family Polichoviridae

Subviral agents

The following infectious agents are smaller than viruses and have only some of their properties.[18][19]

Viroids and virus-dependent agents



Satellites depend on co-infection of a host cell with a helper virus for productive multiplication. Their nucleic acids have substantially distinct nucleotide sequences from either their helper virus or host. When a satellite subviral agent encodes the coat protein in which it is encapsulated, it is then called a satellite virus.

Satellite-like nucleic acids resemble satellite nucleic acids, in that they replicate with the aid of helper viruses. However they differ in that they can encode functions that can contribute to the success of their helper viruses; while they are sometimes considered to be genomic elements of their helper viruses, they are not always found within their helper viruses.[18]

Defective interfering particles

Defective interfering particles are defective viruses that have lost their ability to replicate except in the presence of a helper virus, which is normally the parental virus. They can also interfere with the helper virus.


Prions, named for their description as "proteinaceous infectious particles", do not have nucleic acids or virus-like particles. They resist inactivation procedures that normally affect nucleic acids.[23]

See also


  1. ^ Zimmer C (5 September 2013). "A Catalog for All the World's Viruses?". New York Times. Retrieved 6 September 2013.
  2. ^ a b Alimpiev, Egor (March 15, 2019). Rethinking the Virus Species Concept (PDF).
  3. ^ Adams MJ, Lefkowitz EJ, King AM, Carstens EB (December 2013). "Recently agreed changes to the International Code of Virus Classification and Nomenclature". Archives of Virology. 158 (12): 2633–9. doi:10.1007/s00705-013-1749-9. PMID 23836393.
  4. ^ "International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV)". International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV). Retrieved 2020-03-25.
  5. ^ Peterson, A Townsend (23 July 2014). "Defining viral species: making taxonomy useful". Virology Journal. 11 (1). doi:10.1186/1743-422X-11-131. PMC 4222810. PMID 25055940.
  6. ^ Lefkowitz EJ, Dempsey DM, Hendrickson RC, Orton RJ, Siddell SG, Smith DB (January 2018). "Virus taxonomy: the database of the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV)". Nucleic Acids Research. 46 (D1): D708–D717. doi:10.1093/nar/gkx932. PMC 5753373. PMID 29040670.
  7. ^ a b "ICTV Code". talk.ictvonline.org. International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses. Retrieved 26 April 2020.
  8. ^ "The International Code of Virus Classification and Nomenclature". ICTV. International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses. Retrieved 2 September 2020.
  9. ^ Siddell, Stuart; Walker, Peter; Lefkowitz, Elliot; Mushegian, Arcady; Dutilh, Bas; Harrach, Balázs; Harrison, Robert; Junglen, Sandra; Knowles, Nick; Kropinski, Andrew; Krupovic, Mart; Kuhn, Jens; Nibert, Max; Rubino, Luisa; Sabanadzovic, Sead; Simmonds, Peter; Varsani, Arvind; Zerbini, Francisco; Davison, Andrew (3 December 2019). "Binomial nomenclature for virus species: a consultation". Arch Virol (165): 519–525. doi:10.1007/s00705-019-04477-6. Retrieved 2 September 2020.
  10. ^ Mallapaty, Smriti (30 July 2020). "Should virus-naming rules change during a pandemic? The question divides virologists". Nature (584): 19–20. doi:10.1038/d41586-020-02243-2. Retrieved 2 September 2020.
  11. ^ a b "Virus Taxonomy: 2019 Release". talk.ictvonline.org. International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses. Retrieved 26 April 2020.
  12. ^ Bamford DH (May 2003). "Do viruses form lineages across different domains of life?". Research in Microbiology. 154 (4): 231–6. doi:10.1016/S0923-2508(03)00065-2. PMID 12798226.
  13. ^ Krupovič M, Bamford DH (December 2010). "Order to the viral universe". Journal of Virology. 84 (24): 12476–9. doi:10.1128/JVI.01489-10. PMC 3004316. PMID 20926569.
  14. ^ "Baltimore Classification of Viruses" (Website.) Molecular Biology Web Book - http://web-books.com/. Retrieved on 2008-08-18.
  15. ^ "Virus Taxonomy: 2019 Release". talk.ictvonline.org. International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses. Retrieved 25 April 2020.
  16. ^ Koonin EV, Dolja VV, Krupovic M, Varsani A, Wolf YI, Yutin N, Zerbini M, Kuhn JH. "Proposal: Create a megataxonomic framework, filling all principal taxonomic ranks, for realm Riboviria". International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV). Retrieved 2020-05-21.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  17. ^ Lwoff A, Horne R, Tournier P (1962). "A system of viruses". Cold Spring Harbor Symposia on Quantitative Biology. 27: 51–5. doi:10.1101/sqb.1962.027.001.008. PMID 13931895.
  18. ^ a b "ICTV 9th Report (2011) Subviral Agents". International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses. Retrieved 2020-06-15.
  19. ^ STRAUSS, JAMES H.; STRAUSS, ELLEN G. (2008). "Subviral Agents". Viruses and Human Disease. Elsevier. pp. 345–368. doi:10.1016/b978-0-12-373741-0.50012-x. ISBN 978-0-12-373741-0.
  20. ^ "80.002 Avsunviroidae - ICTVdB Index of Viruses." (Website.) U.S. National Institutes of Health website. Retrieved on 2007-09-27.
  21. ^ "80.001 Popsiviroidae - ICTVdB Index of Viruses." (Website.) U.S. National Institutes of Health website. Retrieved on 2007-09-27.
  22. ^ "81. Satellites - ICTVdB Index of Viruses." (Website.) U.S. National Institutes of Health website. Retrieved on 2007-09-27.
  23. ^ "90. Prions - ICTVdB Index of Viruses." (Website.) U.S. National Institutes of Health website. Retrieved on 2007-09-27.