Does a virus have color?

Does a virus have color? Actually, no. Because viruses are smaller than the wavelength of light (400-700 nanometer), they hide within its waves and can only be seen with an electron microscope. Viruses range in size from 20-300 nm. Yet, most images of viruses are pseudocolored, either to visualize detail or for aesthetic appeal.

• Glass artist Luke Jerram, who is color blind himself, works closely with virologists to create transparent jewel-like replicas of microbes 1,000,000 times their actual size. Virus shapes can be helical, icosahedral (12-sided), prolate (capped cylinder), enveloped or rounded.

Check out his gallery online:

#scienceeveryday #sciencesunday

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84 Responses to Does a virus have color?

  1. Wow. The idea of something not having a color just blew my mind.

  2. Wow! I would totally get one if I could afford it, but I’m guessing they are far beyond my price range. Beautiful!

  3. Paul Melrose says:

    Very beautiful indeed.

  4. Liz Krane says:

    That’s a question I never even thought of! I guess in my mind, viruses look like cooties, and we all know cooties are purple.

  5. Rajini Rao says:

    There may be an Ebola lurking in that collection..I only chose a few!

  6. Gnotic Pasta Might be too delicate? Basically a knotted up bit of rope 😀

  7. Rajini Rao says:

    No, not purple Liz Krane ..such an elegant, royal color. Surely chartreuse or loden ..or one of those yellow/green shades 🙂

  8. Rajini Rao All the toilet cleaner adverts show green for the bacteria 😀

  9. Rajini Rao says:

    Really? Hah, they probably had a subliminal influence on my choice then 🙂

  10. Rajini Rao says:

    Wow, just did a google image search for Ebola virus. I see what you mean..that’s a crazy scary shape!

  11. Jim McGuire says:

    This is great. Do you know the artist? How did he become interested in this? The work is wonderful.

  12. Liz Krane says:

    My friend just made a good point: maybe a single virus has no color, but if you squished enough of them together, wouldn’t they have a color? Because everything that does have color is made up of things that are smaller than the wavelength of light, right?

  13. Matt Kuenzel says:

    E Coli has flagella … interesting.

  14. It’s time we extended human vision to a wider range of the EM spectrum, I say.

  15. Rajini Rao says:

    The flagella rotate through a proton powered motor, Matt Kuenzel . It’s a complex feat of engineering with hundreds of protein components. The flagella rotate clockwise or anti-clockwise and allow the bacterium to tumble through the medium. Liz Krane , for something to be “seen” by light (and therefore to have color) it has to be within the same range of wavelength. I’ll have to think your question through..any physics-y types on here??

  16. Rajini Rao says:

    I wish I knew the artist, Jim McGuire ! He is UK based, that’s all I know. BTW, there are positions of Artist-in-Residence associated with Science departments at various institutions, how cool is that?

  17. Rajini Rao says:

    Mahesh Sreekandath , did you know that heavy metals are used to provide high contrast in electron microscope imaging of viruses? 🙂

  18. Sherri Vance says:

    Amazing, odd, and beautiful!

  19. These are incredibly cool.

  20. Rajini Rao says:

    Sheesh, there is a band called Anthrax?

  21. Rajini Rao says:

    Are you feeling quite well, Mahesh Sreekandath ?

    You’re welcome, by the way 🙂

  22. Rajini Rao says:

    Mahesh Sreekandath , I just read out the top comment to that Megadeth song link and my son and I had a hearty laugh 🙂

  23. Doug Hawkes says:

    Wow these are very, very cool! I would spend some serious money for one of those.

  24. Rajini Rao says:

    Some of them are lit from the inside too, they must look pretty nice. I see that there are exhibits in Europe and the US too..some in Corning, NY.

  25. Rajini Rao says:

    Morbid, what morbid? 😉

    Hehe, I wanted to write an entire thesis on viruses. Managed to control myself to just one point.

  26. Doug Hawkes says:

    I am a molecular biologist and I am utterly fascinated by viruses and their potential in gene therapy. Viruses might be the key to curing many genetic disorders! And these are beautiful and just awesome.

  27. Rajini Rao says:

    Yes, I know Dan..from that conversation with Deeksha Tare (who just had an immunology exam, I believe). What’s cool is that the deadlier they are, the shorter the rampage (because they kill their hosts before they can effectively transmit). In that sense, the less deadly ones are more successful in causing pandemics.

  28. Rajini Rao says:

    So Doug Hawkes , it’s too bad that the adenoviral based gene therapies never really got off, isn’t it? Would be perfect to replace a defective gene with the normal version and deliver it via a targeted viral infection.

  29. Doug Hawkes says:

    My favorite is the bacteriophage. It’s like an alien.

  30. Doug Hawkes says:

    Rajini Rao Yeah, people got scared. Films like I am Legend don’t help 🙂 I like that movie though..

    Anyway I am sure that we will return to tweaking viruses to deliver good copies of genes, or at least copying the “technology”. They totally could be the perfect tool and I will see it done in my lifetime. I hope to be a part of it!

  31. Chad Haney says:

    Slow down Rajini Rao we have a radiation induced gene therapy in clinical trials, that’s an adenovirus.

  32. Rajini Rao says:

    The sad death of 18 yr old Jesse Gelsinger in a gene therapy trial back in 1999 was a major set back for this method. I think it was a cystic fibrosis trial using adenovirus. Edit: not CF, some liver disease. It was at UPenn and shocked everyone. Big, big lawsuit of course.

  33. Doug Hawkes says:

    Cystic Fibrosis and Sickle Cell have seemed at first the best candidates for gene therapy and viral vectors, but I have a feeling that a more general solution will need to be discovered. Like deriving a general formula that solves all situations rather than a single solution to a single problem. With the integration of computers and a few inspired ideas, I am sure that this century will see some amazing things done with the tools nature has been hiding from us until now.

  34. Rajini Rao says:

    How is the radiation induction linked to the virus, Chad Haney ?

  35. Doug Hawkes says:

    Caleb Allen Yeah it’s too bad America is embarrassingly needing to focus on figuring out how stop the whole country from becoming obese rather than being able stream funds toward cures to things people can’t actually control. But hey, things will get better. If only the world economy was booming right now, there would be so much more funding for all of these exciting possibilities. They seriously just need the man hours and amazing developments will explode into existence.

  36. Corey LeMont says:

    Rajini Rao Does this imply that every macroscopic object we set our eyes on is lit up like a dot matrix image?

  37. Chad Haney says:

    I remember that Rajini Rao In my opinion, the approach at UofC is smart because you inject it in the tumor and activate it locally with radiation, double whammy minimizing systemic toxicity of the gene product ; TNF.

  38. Rajini Rao says:

    I’m not sure I get that, Andrew Carpenter ? Chad Haney or Gnotic Pasta , can you answer that? To be seen, a particle has to reflect or diffract light. If it is smaller than the wavelength of visible light, then you can’t use light to resolve it.

  39. Chad Haney says:

    Rajini Rao and Gnotic Pasta I’m on my phone so I’ll post a link later, but you can try searching R. Weichselbam and Tnferade. It’s not what Dan linked.

  40. I intellectually knew that virii were smaller than the wavelength of visible light, but never realized they did not have color. That’s pretty cool.

  41. Rajini Rao

    Let Eng in me comment on color question: it is true that one needs certain size to reflect color. That is because less than half wavelength size tend to pass the wave over the object.

    But light has a large spectrum. In your comment you meant visible light.

    Any material can absorb one wavelength and emit another. That is seen in dispersions liquids. That is called as Tindal effect. This materials can absorb a shorter wavelength and emit larger one.

    That is, theoretically, size of the object can not decide color completely.

    Usually, the colors we see are reflection colors. Those are affected by the size. But if we take a single atom and allow it to emit a photon, it will emit a photon based on how many energy levels outer electron drops and what was the eV value of that drop.

    The atom and molecular structures decide the energy levels outer electrons will drop or absorb. That will decide what wavelengths will be seen by the outside world. The constant which decides the relation bet energy level and frequency/wavelength is Planks constant.

    That is why the colors of stars can tell you temperature. Higher the temp, higher the frequency because the outer electrons are at higher eV level. When they drop to normal level the frequency they emit is higher ( low is red, high is violet). This decides the color too.

    So, your were generally right that for reflected light, size of the object is important. But that is not the complete story.

    You can inject or mutate the virus to make material which can emit light if excited at a temperature. Then one can make viruses emit visible colors.

  42. Doug Hawkes says:

    Gosh, Google+ is awesome. Where else do you instantly have conversations like this with random people in a place that is not an archaic forum website?

  43. Rajini Rao says:

    Thanks for your comments, mandar khadilkar . Yes, I did mean visible light, as noted in my answer to Andrew Carpenter above. A virus cannot emit light for the simple reason that it is essentially inanimate outside the host cell. No activity, no chemical reactions, no possibility of emitting light. But bacteria and many other life forms can produce fluorescent and luminescent reactions, emitting light which can be detected. I guess the point I was making is that by being smaller than the wavelength of visible light, a virus can neither reflect, absorb nor scatter it. But a beam of electrons will work.

  44. Chad Haney says:

    That’s right Dan. Thanks.

  45. Rajini Rao says:

    Very interesting, thanks Gnotic Pasta ! I do hope it works. Did you know that in everyday lab work, we use viruses to introduce DNA into cells that are hard to “transfect” otherwise. We package our gene of interest into a crippled virus and then sprinkle it on cells, and voila! Our gene gets into the cells. Just doesn’t work as well in whole animals.

  46. Chad Haney says:

    For us it’s replication deficient.

  47. Corey LeMont says:

    Rajini Rao So the electron is exciting the atoms of the virus and this causes photons to be emitted, right? And my question was about large flat surfaces like a wall. I was thinking that maybe between the waves of visible light, there would be spaces where there was no visible reflected light. I probably did not take into account “diffuse reflection” in addition to “specular reflection.” I’m assuming diffuse reflection is caused by small imperfections in an otherwise flat surface. Would I be right that if there was a perfectly flat plane reflecting light from one angle and only specular reflection was occuring, there would be color and no color depending on where the wave happened to crest? In theory? Most likely, I’m completely wrong.

  48. Rajini Rao says:

    Crippled in that it cannot survive/infect on its own. So we use a helper virus and the crippled virus to coinfect cells. Otherwise it would be too dangerous to handle.

  49. Rajini Rao says:

    Andrew Carpenter , the electron beam is being scattered by the virus just as a beam of light would. The difference is that the wavelength of that beam is much smaller. According to Wiki: “Electron microscopes (EM) have a greater resolving power than a light-powered optical microscope, because electrons have wavelengths about 100,000 times shorter than visible light (photons), and can achieve better than 50 pm resolution[1] and magnifications of up to about 10,000,000x, whereas ordinary, non-confocal light microscopes are limited by diffraction to about 200 nm resolution and useful magnifications below 2000x.”

  50. Corey LeMont says:

    Rajini Rao thanks. I think I understand my confusion a little better now too. Most diffusion does not happen because of texture on a flat surface. It mostly happens because of cavities below the surface. very interesting discussion.

  51. Chad Haney says:

    Rajini Rao and Gnotic Pasta I grabbed my laptop so here’s the link to one of my papers where we used oxygen imaging to show that the radiation induced gene therapy works in a prostate cancer model.

    It uses an EGR promoter that is sensitive to radiation so the gene turns on where we irradiate and not so much elsewhere.

  52. Rajini Rao Hmmm, then I don’t understand the reasoning. Any molecule within a virus is still a molecule. It just happens that there are large enough molecules of various nature absorbing or emitting all minds of wavelengths so it looks white.

    If tomorrow we make a certain molecular dominnent, then one can make virus look colored.

    As a matter of fact, color of material is a complex thing. Reflection color is decided by incident wavelengths and molecular absorption properties. But refraction based colors are more complex based on refractive index. That also decides color. When certain wavelengths get higher angle than others, observer will see a color because now he/she is missing certain wavelengths at that angle.

    Now in bet these two there are many other phenomena that alter composition of wavelengths of light leaving the material.

    Those wavelengths if in visible range can make any object look colored even if they are smaller than the half wavelength of the certain range.

    The problem is that those small changes are not differentiable to human eyes. Reflection colors produce highly differentiated light and thus we see those colored.

  53. Deeksha Tare says:

    Just a minute Rajini Rao and Gnotic Pasta

    Just recovering from the ESS (Exam Shock Syndrome)

    Would be back in a bit!!

  54. Deeksha Tare says:

    Thanks for the beautiful share…

    I have seen these pics before Rajini Rao

    perhaps in one of mary Zeman ‘s posts (though I’m not totaaly sure as it was a long time back)

    And even had seen a video about the artist showing how he makes those! 🙂 It was so cool to see the kind of effort and skill which goes into that!

  55. Deeksha Tare says:

    Check out this link! Feisal Kamil

    It has the video in the end

    Hehe I think I need some sleep, I searched for and ended up pasting the same address which Rajini Rao has mentioned in the post! LOL!

  56. Deeksha Tare says:

    Don’t worry Doug Hawkes 🙂

    That day is not far! We still have faith in science and these tiny little creatures !!

  57. Deeksha Tare says:

    Thanks for sharing the link to your paper Chad Haney

    Really an interesting one!

  58. Adam Black says:

    Rajini Rao


    the Adenovirus gene therapy about to Stop the HIV epidemic:

    #DavidBaltimore #HivCure


  59. Thank god that bacteria has got some colour….cz I’d defenately prefer curd white instead of without any colour…lol

  60. Is that really a fair statement about Viruses not having color? Elements within it likely would. Take for instance Hemoglobin, a protein much smaller than a Virus. The iron within Hemoglobin are responsible for the color of our blood being red. We can experience that phenomenon because hemoglobin is grouped together in large quantities which are greater in volume than a wavelength. The limited number of viruses grouped together would prevent light from engaging atoms, but that’s only an issue of perception and density, not the intrinsic value of “color” which viruses might posses.

    Either way. I’m enjoying the things you’ve posted Rajini. Best.

  61. Rajini Rao says:

    Casey Steffen , you raise a similar point to Liz Krane ‘s question on whether a large aggregate of viruses would be colored. I guess they could be, and I’m going to defer to José P. Llongueras in my lab who prepares lentiviral pellets in large quantities. Assuming that the pellet is not contaminated by colored components of the culture medium (quite likely!). Zinc, magnesium and copper are some metal ions that bind to viral proteins and could impart color although they are not going to be as abundant as the cytochromes in mitochondria or hemoglobins in red blood cells.

    I was making the point that a virion is smaller than the wavelength of visible light 🙂

  62. We actually use a lentiviral concentrator that gives the virus a pale, yellowish color after removing any culture media and resuspending in PBS (a clear, saline-like solution). My understanding is that all microorganisms, particularly viruses, have no color, and are pseudo colored in research for clarity purposes. And then there’s the point that boss made, about them being smaller than the wavelength of visible light.

  63. Rajini Rao says:

    Expert comment appreciated, José P. Llongueras ! 🙂

  64. José P. Llongueras thanks for your clarification. I’m fascinated by the topic. (new blog post idea Rajini?! people seem interested in the topic:)

    I suppose when I thought about it earlier, I was asking myself the question: Where do colors begin and where do they end? They end at our eye, and our biochemical response to different types of light that we all experience together as a specific “color”, but where does each color begin? If I know iron is responsible for red, that begs the question about the causes of other organic colors. Does blue stop at the resolution of bacteria for some reason? Again, I keep coming back to the same question, where do colors begin and end? Is all organic color variation we know of a result of light transmission and distortion through different atomic densities? or is the aggregate of specific atom types the cause light giving us the sense in color variation? Smarter people than myself surely have the answer, but I do enjoy the thought of proteins and viruses giving off the faintest of color due to their atomic anatomy.

    thanks again for the post. must get back to work. this is how i know G+ is better than facebook.

  65. Very cool Rajini Rao! Pretty sure my wife wouldn’t let me buy a glass virus for the house unfortunately. Pretty sure I would get the look :).

  66. Azad IS says:

    If they cant be seen because of their ultrwave lenght !!! then How actually are they visualized? just by imaging???? through electron dense particles…??? this is amazing… ofcourse virus might have amazing geometric configurations….!!! Thanks Rajini Rao for anice info.

  67. Actually, there are a few known virions larger than 400 nm, so those may still be able to reflect some visible light:

    Mimivirus: capsid diameter of 400 nm, protein filaments of 100 nm, total length [diameter] of the virus up to 600 nm

    Mamavirus: “larger than mimivirus; thus, the name mamavirus”

  68. Rajini Rao says:

    I think I did a post on Megavirus at some point last year when they were discovered. 750 nm in diameter:

    We had a discussion going on how they isolated it from liters of sea water.

  69. Dima Tisnek says:

    perhaps viruses have colour in numbers?

    or single virus has color if it scintillates?

    if this made no sense I plead 7am!

  70. Arnav Kalra says:

    Do viruses actually look like this? They don’t look like anything related to bio.

  71. Rajini Rao says:

    Yes, absolutely they look like this Arnav Kalra . This is bio, welcome 🙂

  72. Arnav Kalra says:

    Rajini Rao creepy stuff.

    Feisal Kamil 🙂

  73. Actually, the virions (aka viral particles) of some species/families haven’t a clear regular (with some kind of symmetry the capsids of the same species with exactly the same architecture). For instance, if I remember correctly the smallpox viral particles and other members of its family look like amorphous packs. Also, the virions of many families are filiform (e.g., Ebola virus, many plant viruses), rod-shaped or with the shape similar to a bullet (members of the Rabiviridae family such as the rabies virus) but here they haven’t been represented.

  74. Rajini Rao says:

    That’s right..some envelope viruses can look like lumpy blebs of membrane. 

  75. Corey LeMont says:

    Biologically, they are bery blunt instruments it seems. They’re made to survive, not necessarily to thrive. With all the talk of biological modularity here recently, on a more abstract level, you have modules to solely survive like viruses or cancer cells with their “driver genes.” And then you have mammalian brains which seems to add the abstract module of the ability to thrive…especually the orefrontal cortex/hippocampus.

  76. Adit Morey says:

    Really nice…… the first virus sculpture resembles a robot….it appears to be another one of nature’s unexplained quirks

  77. Rajini Rao says:

    Adit Morey , it does indeed! It’s called a bacteriophage….a virus that attacks bacteria. 

  78. Chad Haney says:

    I think some of my plus 1s are getting undone. I swear I plussed this back in 2012 when you first posted it.

  79. Rajini Rao says:

    Well, hello Chad Haney . This has a “back to the future” kind of feel. 

  80. Chad Haney says:

    I hope I have enough gigawatts to get back to the present.

  81. Adit Morey says:

    Thanks, Rajini Rao, I learnt a new word today.

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