The origin and evolution of viruses (a review).
Viroids and prions might have existed early at the border of inanimate and living worlds. Most extant viruses can be characterized as derivatives of ancestors originating from episomal elements of prokaryotes (DNA phages) and later from eukaryotes. Retroviruses very likely originated from cellular retrotransposons. Retrograde evolution of some large viruses from obligatory intracellular bacteria is possible but the ontogenesis of extant bacteria does not include a viral form of existence (the filterable L forms are not viruses) and well-defined viruses do not regenerate back into vegetative bacterial forms. Biologists experimenting with the evolution of prokaryotic and eukaryotic ancient cells cannot ignore the earliest appearance of viruses within or outside the living matter. Viruses participated in and gave direction to the evolution and natural selection by coexisting with uni- and multicellular organisms for billions of years. The coevolution of viruses and their host cells is characterized by incessant attacks and counterattacks through gene rearrangements and mutations (induced in the virus by an immunological counterattack of the host or by transgression of species barriers by the virus) and recombinations. Recombinations occurred between viral and viral or viral and host genes. Acts of "molecular piracy" as practiced by ancient viruses endowed the virus with the expression of several host genes for the advantage of the virus in its replicative cycle and host-to-host spread. Probably the first immortalized and malignantly transformed cells were induced by viruses as viruses evolved anti-apoptotic measures. While infected cells resort to apoptotic death before the assembly of a new viral progeny, prominent are the anti-apoptotic measures viruses evolved in order to assure the completion of their full replicative cycle. Further, viruses may escape neutralization by host antibodies and may survive a counterattack by the host's T cells directed at virally infected cells of its own. Viruses may induce a form of tolerance and coexist with their host without inducing disease. Persistent and apparently or deceivingly apathogenic or even attenuated viral "quasi-species" populations may contain individual particles that regain virulence due to recombinations and/or gene rearrangements, especially when transgressing species barriers. Xenotropic viruses of animals may replicate in human cells and vice versa confounding experiments with xenotransplants or with use of veterinary viral vaccines for the treatment of human diseases.