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Scientists garner new understanding about malaria parasites

Through a new study scientists have found that various stages of the development of human malaria parasites, including stages involved in malaria transmission, are linked to epigenetic features.

Scientists at the the University of California, Riverside, and their colleagues also found how chromatin — the complex of DNA and proteins within the nucleus — is organized and structured in these parasites.

Researchers explain that the development of the malaria parasite throughout its life cycle is mostly controlled by how the chromatin structure, together with epigenetics, modulates gene expression. Epigenetics involves genetic control by factors other than an individual’s DNA sequence. By switching genes on or off, epigenetic changes determine which genes are transcribed.

Le Roch and her colleagues demonstrated that genome organization is not only important in human tissues and complex organisms, but can also affect the normal development of eukaryotic pathogens, such as malaria parasites.

Malaria, which infects hundreds of millions of people worldwide and kills more than 450,000 people each year, is caused by one of five parasites of the Plasmodium species. Understanding the mechanisms involved in gene regulation during the various life cycle stages of the parasites is important for developing novel strategies to block parasite replication and transmission.

Researchers analyzed the genome organization when the parasite replicates inside red blood cells and during sexual differentiation in P. falciparum, as well as during the transmission stage from mosquito to humans in P. falciparum and P. vivaxP. falciparum is the most common and deadly parasite. P. vivax, responsible for significant disease, is found mostly in Southeast Asia. Understanding how the transitions between the various life cycle stages of the parasites are regulated remains an important goal in malaria research.

The researchers used next-generation sequencing at UCR to understand the epigenetics features and how the Plasmodium chromatin is organized throughout the parasite’s life cycle.

The findings bring a new level of insight into genome organization and dynamics during the Plasmodium life cycle, the authors argue, and open up new avenues for targeted approaches toward understanding parasite gene regulation.

Study results appear this week in Nature Communications.

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