When a person gets malaria, a rhythmic dance takes place inside his or her body. The disease's telltale signs -- cyclical fevers and chills -- are caused by successive broods of parasites multiplying in synchrony inside red blood cells, then bursting out in unison every few days. Now, a study shows that even when grown outside the body, malaria parasites can still keep a beat. Reporting in the May 15, 2020 issue of Science, Duke researchers and collaborators have uncovered rhythms in the parasite's gene activity levels that don't rely on time cues from the host, but instead are coordinated from within the parasite itself. The Science article is titled “An Intrinsic Oscillator Drives the Blood Stage Cycle of the Malaria Parasite, Plasmodium falciparum” (https://science.sciencemag.org/content/368/6492/754). The findings indicate that the parasite that causes malaria has its own time-keeping machinery, an internal metronome that ticks of its own accord and causes thousands of parasite genes to ramp up and down at regular intervals. "Malaria has all the molecular signatures of a clock," said Duke biology professor Steven Haase, PhD, the lead author of the study. Understanding how malaria's clock works might help scientists develop new weapons against a disease that kills a child every two minutes, and has proven increasingly resistant to existing drugs, Dr. Haase said. Dr. Haase has spent years studying cell cycles in yeast to understand controls on the timing of events as one cell becomes two, but only recently has he turned to malaria. The work was prompted by a question that has vexed scientists: how do the parasites keep time?
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