Malaria gene discovery could lead to further genetic discoveries

Researchers have uncovered a gene in Plasmodium falciparum, the malaria parasite, that could spur further genetic discoveries related to the entire organism.

Scientists often describe P. falciparum as a genetic outlier that has been able to keep the functions of most of its genes a secret, according to PhysOrg.com.

Researchers from the Yale University School of Medicine were recently able to devise a technique that has allowed them to identify a gene from the bacterium involved in lipid synthesis. They hope the discovery will foster a better understanding of how the parasite functions and potentially lead to new medications for the disease.

"The malarial genome has been a black box. Our technique allows us to open that box, so that we can learn what genes in the most lethal human parasite actually do," the senior author of the study, Dr. Dennis Voelker, said, PhysOrg.com reports. "This could prove tremendously valuable in the fight against a disease that has become increasingly drug-resistant."

The genome of P. falciparum was mapped in 2002, but the functions of many of its genes remain unknown. The primary method for uncovering gene functions has been to insert an unknown gene from an organism into an understood model organism. Scientists can use their existing knowledge base to observe how the inserted gene alters the model organism's biology.

P. falciparum's genes, however, do not generally function when inserted into other organisms. Genes from P. knowlesi, a genetic cousin, are similar in nature, however, and have been found to function when inserted into yeast, a common model organism.

The Yale team was able to transplant P. knowlesi genes into yeast, discover their function and then compare them to those in P. falciparum. The technique allowed the team to find a new gene involved in the synthesis of lipids in the malaria parasite's cell membrane.

"This technique could lead to an explosion in knowledge about malaria and the parasite that causes it." Dr. Voelker said, according to PhysOrg.com.