FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 30, 2016

Humans, apes share genes connected to malaria virulence

Humans and apes share genes connected to malaria virulence. | Courtesy of opb.org
Scientists from the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health recently found that malaria parasite molecules share important gene segments with gorilla and chimp malaria parasites.

Over 500,000 people die from malaria each year. Many of these people are children who live in sub-Saharan Africa. Human malaria causes serious disease syndromes, including malarial anemia, cerebral malaria and pregnancy-associated malaria. Malaria infects red blood cells and then makes them bind to the blood vessels’ inner lining, causing a variety of health problems.

"The evolution of these key virulence determinants doesn't occur in the same way as in other pathogens,” Caroline Buckee, assistant professor of epidemiology at Harvard Chan School and senior author of the study, said. “Instead of gradually changing by mutation, like the flu virus, these malaria parasites exchange intact gene segments, like shuffling a deck of cards.”

The genetic connection is surprising, as these parasites are divided by millions of years. Researchers can use this discovery to better understand what causes malaria. Now they may also be able to specify better targets for vaccines and drugs.

"Astonishingly, we have found the very same shared sequence mosaics in these highly divergent species, implying that these short mosaic sequences, in spite of continual diversification, have an ancient origin," Buckee said. "The origin of human malaria virulence factors is actually much older than previously thought."

Further details about the study are available in the Oct. 12 online edition of Nature Communications. Harvard School of Public Health is located at 677 Huntington Ave., Boston.

Organizations in this story

Harvard School of Public Health 677 Huntington Ave Boston, MA 02115

Get notified the next time we write about Harvard School of Public Health!