If the private key is lost, the bitcoin network will not recognize any other evidence of ownership; the coins are then unusable, and effectively lost. For example, in 2013 one user claimed to have lost 7,500 bitcoins, worth $7.5 million at the time, when he accidentally discarded a hard drive containing his private key. A backup of his key(s) would have prevented this.
A wallet stores the information necessary to transact bitcoins. While wallets are often described as a place to hold or store bitcoins, due to the nature of the system, bitcoins are inseparable from the blockchain transaction ledger. A better way to describe a wallet is something that "stores the digital credentials for your bitcoin holdings" and allows one to access (and spend) them. Bitcoin uses public-key cryptography, in which two cryptographic keys, one public and one private, are generated. At its most basic, a wallet is a collection of these keys.
More recently, at a congressional hearing on Capitol Hill, global economist and New York University professor Nouriel Roubini said, "Crypto is the mother or father of all scams and bubbles." He called out "swindlers" who tapped into investors' fear of missing out and took them for a ride with "crappy assets that went into a bust and crash — in a matter of months — like you have not seen in any history of financial bubbles."