For the first time, scientists have uncovered the likely series of events that led to the world’s deadliest malaria parasite being able to jump from gorillas to humans. Researchers at the Wellcome Sanger Institute in the UK and the University of Montpellier in France reconstructed an approximately 50,000-year-old gene sequence that was acquired by the ancestor of Plasmodium falciparum, giving it the ability to infect human red blood cells. The researchers found that this rh5 gene enabled the parasite to infect both gorillas and humans for a limited time, explaining how the jump was made at a molecular level. The team also identified the specific DNA mutation that subsequently restricted P. falciparum to humans. The study, published on October 15, 2019 in PLOS Biology, provides a plausible molecular explanation for how one of the world’s most deadly infectious diseases came to infect humans, and will be important more generally for understanding how pathogens are able to jump from one species to another. The open-access article is titled “Resurrection of the Ancestral RH5 Invasion Ligand Provides a Molecular Explanation for the Origin of P. Falciparum Malaria In Humans.” Malaria remains a major global health problem causing an estimated 435,000 deaths per year, with 61 per cent occurring in children under five years of age. P. falciparum is the species of parasite that is responsible for the most deadly form of malaria and is particularly prevalent in Africa, where it accounted for 99.7 per cent of malaria cases in 2017. P. falciparum is one of seven species of parasite that can cause malaria in a family known as the Laverania.
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