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Genome sequences reveal divergence times of malaria parasite lineages

  • JOANA C. SILVA (a1) (a2), AMY EGAN (a2), ROBERT FRIEDMAN (a3), JAMES B. MUNRO (a1) (a2), JANE M. CARLTON (a4) and AUSTIN L. HUGHES (a3)...

The evolutionary history of human malaria parasites (genus Plasmodium) has long been a subject of speculation and controversy. The complete genome sequences of the two most widespread human malaria parasites, P. falciparum and P. vivax, and of the monkey parasite P. knowlesi are now available, together with the draft genomes of the chimpanzee parasite P. reichenowi, three rodent parasites, P. yoelii yoelli, P. berghei and P. chabaudi chabaudi, and one avian parasite, P. gallinaceum.


We present here an analysis of 45 orthologous gene sequences across the eight species that resolves the relationships of major Plasmodium lineages, and provides the first comprehensive dating of the age of those groups.


Our analyses support the hypothesis that the last common ancestor of P. falciparum and the chimpanzee parasite P. reichenowi occurred around the time of the human-chimpanzee divergence. P. falciparum infections of African apes are most likely derived from humans and not the other way around. On the other hand, P. vivax, split from the monkey parasite P. knowlesi in the much more distant past, during the time that encompasses the separation of the Great Apes and Old World Monkeys.


The results support an ancient association between malaria parasites and their primate hosts, including humans.

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