A capsid is the protein shell of a virus. It consists of several oligomeric structural subunits made of protein called protomers. The observable 3-dimensional morphological subunits, which may or may not correspond to individual proteins, are called capsomeres. The capsid encloses the genetic material of the virus.

Some viruses are enveloped, meaning that the capsid is coated with a lipid membrane known as the viral envelope. The envelope is acquired by the capsid from an intracellular membrane in the virus' host; examples include the inner nuclear membrane, the golgi membrane, and the cell's outer membrane.

Structural analyses of major capsid protein (MCP) architectures have been used to categorise viruses into lineages. For example, the bacteriophage PRD1, the algal virus Paramecium bursaria Chlorella virus (PBCV-1), mimivirus and the mammalian adenovirus have been placed in the same lineage, whereas tailed, double-stranded DNA bacteriophages (Caudovirales) and herpesvirus belong to a second lineage.

The virus must assemble a stable, protective protein shell to protect the genome from lethal chemical and physical agents. These include forms of natural radiation, extremes of pH or temperature and proteolytic and nucleolytic enzymes. For non-enveloped viruses, the capsid itself may be involved in interaction with receptors on the host cell, leading to penetration of the host cell membrane and internalization of the capsid. Delivery of the genome occurs by subsequent uncoating or disassembly of the capsid and release of the genome into the cytoplasm, or by ejection of the genome through a specialized portal structure directly into the host cell nucleus.

It has been suggested that many viral capsid proteins have evolved on multiple occasions from functionally diverse cellular proteins. The recruitment of cellular proteins appears to have occurred at different stages of evolution, so that some cellular proteins were captured and refunctionalized prior to the divergence of cellular organisms into the three contemporary domains of life, whereas others were hijacked relatively recently. As a result, some capsid proteins are widespread in viruses infecting distantly related organisms (e.g., capsid proteins with the jelly-roll fold), whereas others are restricted to a particular group of viruses (e.g., capsid proteins of alphaviruses).