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If you’re going to create a new life form (even if it’s only digital), Sunday seems like the best day to give it a try.


Build-A-Virus is a quick, fun, and simple game that was created and put on-line by Bioreliance. I wrote about this activity in the earlier incarnation of this blog, and I still find it to be lots of fun, even when my students are college instructors.

In this activity, you create a new virus by picking different physical characteristics.

The game works like this:

  1. First, you choose whether the virus has an envelope or not.
  2. Next, you choose whether the genome is single or double-stranded.
  3. Then you pick your favorite kind of nucleic acid – RNA or DNA
  4. Last, you decide if the viral particle should be small, medium, or large.
  5. If you picked a collection of physical characteristics that match a known virus, the site tells you what kind of virus you built (computer is not a choice!).

Not only do students learn that viruses have a pretty simple set of features, they learn something about viral taxonomy. We use characteristics like the presence of an envelope or the shape and structure of the genome to identify viruses and predict how they will behave.

Plus, it can be very enlightening for students to learn that genomes don’t have to be linear, double-stranded DNA. If there’s a form of a nucleic acid that can be replicated, a virus probably has it. Viruses can have circular DNA, single stranded DNA, double-stranded RNA, single-stranded RNA, and even multiple pieces of single-stranded RNA (in the case of influenza). Once we learn that organisms with an RNA genome can, indeed reproduce, and exist among us, theoretical ideas about the origin of life and “an RNA world,” no longer seem quite so far fetched and theoretical.

This site can also be helpful if you’re a student. Studying for a microbiology test? Go to the site and see if you remember viral traits well enough to build a retrovirus or a picornavirus. Challenge yourself! and have some fun.

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  1. #1 gio
    May 30, 2008

    Too bad,

    I was thinking I could “really” build one (you know, build the actual genome…). I think I was shooting for the stars right there…

  2. #2 Sandra Porter
    May 30, 2008

    Don’t be disappointed gio. There is a field called “synthetic biology” where people are building new organisms.

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