The origins of modern viruses are not entirely clear. It may be that no single mechanism can account for all viruses. They do not fossilize well, so molecular techniques have been the most useful means of hypothesising how they arose. Research in microfossil identification and molecular biology may yet discern fossil evidence dating to the Archean or Proterozoic eons. Two main hypotheses currently exist.
Small viruses with only a few genes may be runaway stretches of nucleic acid originating from the genome of a living organism. Their genetic material could have been derived from transferable genetic elements such as plasmids or transposons, which are prone to moving within, leaving, and entering genomes.
Viruses with larger genomes, such as poxviruses, may have once been small cells which parasitised larger host cells. Over time, genes not required by their parasitic lifestyle would have been lost in a streamlining process known as retrograde-evolution or reverse-evolution. The bacteria Rickettsia and Chlamydia are living cells that, like viruses, can only reproduce inside host cells. They lend credence to the streamlining hypothesis, as their parasitic lifestyle is likely to have caused the loss of genes that enabled them to survive outside a host cell.
It is hypothetically possible that viruses represent a primitive form of self replicating DNA and are a precursor to life as it is presently defined.
Other infectious particles which are even simpler in structure than viruses include viroids, satellites, and prions.