Chicken Pox Virus Structure and Function

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Wendy McDougal

Wendy has taught high school Biology and has a master's degree in education.

Chickenpox is caused by the varicella zoster virus. It is highly contagious, but incidents have been reduced greatly with the development of a vaccine. Learn more about this virus and quiz yourself.

A Telltale Rash

When we get sick, it can sometimes be hard to tell exactly what we have. Is it caused by bacteria or a virus? Is it a common cold or an infection? We often head to the doctor for answers. However, for generations there was one childhood illness that was easily identifiable by parents everywhere. Its calling card was the rash of red spots that suddenly appeared, quickly spreading all over the body as well as to the rest of the kids in the house. The miserable itching, blistering and scabbing of the skin could only mean one thing: Chickenpox had arrived.

Chickenpox, is caused by the varicella zoster virus, or VZV for short. For decades, this illness was a very normal part of childhood. However, with the arrival of its vaccine in 1995, it has become much more rare. In this lesson, we'll zoom in on this minuscule but powerful organism and learn more about its structure and function.

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  • 0:02 A Telltale Rash
  • 1:01 Varicella Zoster Virus
  • 2:59 Infecting a Host Cell
  • 4:14 Shingles
  • 4:46 Lesson Summary
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Varicella Zoster Virus

Let's first look at characteristics of viruses in general. These tiny, alien-like creatures are composed of a protein shell with genetic information inside. A virus is an extremely small infection agent that hijacks cells of living organisms in order to replicate themselves and spread.

Viruses are classified according to their chemical, physical and morphological properties. Based on this classification, the varicella zoster virus is part of the herpesvirus family. You may have experienced cold sores, which are also caused by the herpesvirus, but a different type. Specifically, VZV is known as human herpesvirus 3. VZV is very specific in the organisms that it targets, as it only infects human cells.

Let's take a closer look at the structure of the VZV. It is composed of four main parts: the envelope, tegument, capsid, and core. The envelope is the outer covering of the virus. It is made of a lipid bilayer, studded with spiky glycoproteins. These glycoproteins are there to bind with the cell receptors of the host cell, allowing the virus a gateway into its host.

The tegument is the next layer inside the envelope, and it is composed of another layer of viral proteins. Next we find the protein shell mentioned earlier, called the nucleocapsid. Like the nucleus of a living cell, the nucleocapsid contains the very important DNA. Think of a capsule in which important items are stored. And the shape of this shell is most extraordinary. As if straight out of a geometry textbook, it is a twenty-faced icosahedron.

Tucked within the nucleocapsid is the core, which is the lifeline for the virus. Genetic information in the form of a linear double strand of DNA is safely encapsulated, only to be released when infecting a host cell. Of all the types of herpesvirus, VZV contains the smallest genome.

Infecting a Host Cell

You may be wondering exactly how the varicella zoster virus infects its host. VZV is transmitted by droplets, meaning that it can be transmitted if an infected person shares their food or drink. Coughing and sneezing into someone's face also helps to pass the virus along.

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