Viruses depend on the host cells that they infect to reproduce. When found outside of host cells, viruses exist as a protein coat or capsid, sometimes enclosed within a membrane. The capsid encloses either DNAor RNA which codes for the virus elements. While in this form outside the cell, the virus is metabollically inert.
When it comes into contact with a host cell, a virus can insert its genetic material into its host, literally taking over the host's functions. An infected cell produces more viral protein and genetic material instead of its usual products. Some viruses may remain dormant inside host cells for long periods, causing no obvious change in their host cells (a stage known as the lysogenicphase). But when a dormant virus is stimulated, it enters the lytic phase: new viruses are formed, self-assemble, and burst out of the host cell, killing the cell and going on to infect other cells.
viruses can transfer genetic material between different species of host, they are extensively used in genetic engineering. Viruses also carry out natural "genetic engineering": a virus may incorporate some genetic material from its host as it is replicating, and transfer this genetic information to a new host, even to a host unrelated to the previous host. This is known as transduction, and in some cases it may serve as a means of evolutionary change -- although it is not clear how important an evolutionary mechanism transduction actually is.