The genetics behind malaria’s evolution into a deadly global killer

| | June 4, 2018
malaria
Image: Ben Moldenhauer
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The secrets of how malaria became a human-killer have been revealed by a genetic study. The work, led by researchers from Wellcome Sanger Institute in Cambridge, compared seven types of malaria – tracing the parasite’s family tree.

This revealed that, about 50,000 years ago, the parasites diverged, with one “branch” evolving into the most deadly human-infecting species.

One element of this diversion was a genetic switch that enabled malaria to infect human red blood cells – a “chunk of deadly DNA” that previous studies suggest could yet provide a target for a malaria-blocking vaccine.

The researchers examined seven different types of malaria – three that infect chimpanzees, three that infect gorillas and the deadly human-infecting species. Scientists discovered that the evolutionary lineage leading to Plasmodium falciparum emerged 50,000 years ago, but did not fully diverge as a human-specific parasite species until 3,000 to 4,000 years ago.

Related article:  Do our brains hamper our response to climate change’s growing threat?

Prof Janet Hemingway, director of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine said the discovery was “really important” because it built a picture of how and when a disease crossed the species barrier, going on to become a deadly human disease.

“It does perhaps underline why it is so important that we react to current movement of animal parasites and viruses into humans and do not give them chance to become permanently transmitted from human to human.”

Read full, original post: Malaria genetics: study shows how disease became deadly

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