Review: Phase transitions in virology


Viruses have established relationships with almost every other living organism on Earth and at all levels of biological organization: from other viruses up to entire ecosystems. In most cases, they peacefully coexist with their hosts, but in most relevant cases, they parasitize them and induce diseases and pandemics, such as the AIDS and the most recent avian influenza and COVID-19 pandemic events, causing a huge impact on health, society, and economy. Viruses play an essential role in shaping the eco-evolutionary dynamics of their hosts, and have been also involved in some of the major evolutionary innovations either by working as vectors of genetic information or by being themselves coopted by the host into their genomes.

Viruses can be studied at different levels of biological organization, from the molecular mechanisms of genome replication, gene expression and encapsidation, to global pandemics. All these levels are different and yet connected through the presence of threshold conditions allowing for the formation of a capsid, the loss of genetic information or epidemic spreading. These thresholds, as occurs with temperature separating phases in a liquid, define sharp qualitative types of behaviour. These phase transitionsare very well known in physics. They have been studied by means of simple, but powerful models able to capture their essential properties, allowing us to better understand them. Can the physics of phase transitions be an inspiration for our understanding of viral dynamics at different scales?

Here we review well-known mathematical models of transition phenomena in virology. We suggest that the advantages of abstract, simplified pictures used in physics are also the key to properly understanding the origins and evolution of complexity in viruses. By means of several examples, we explore this multilevel landscape and how minimal models provide deep insights into a diverse array of problems. The relevance of these transitions in connecting dynamical patterns across scales and their evolutionary and clinical implications are outlined.

R. Solé, J. Sardanyés, S. F. Elena, Phase transitions in virology, Reports on Progress in Physics 84 (2021) 115901