Plasmodium falciparum is the protozoan parasite that causes malaria in humans and ultimately the death of 2-3 million people a year. If you didn’t know, malaria is one of the most common infectious diseases and an enormous public health problem. Only one other malaria causing protozoan, a sister species of the P. falciparum parasite, P. reichenowi, was known to cause malaria but infects only chimpanzees. That was until researchers based in Gabon and France began sampling pet chimpanzees.
The team collected blood from 19 wild-borne animals kept as pets by villagers in Gabon, 17 of them being chimps. They found out that infected by a Plasmodium parasite, but sequencing of the parasite’s whole mitochondrial genome showed that it wasn’t P. falciparum nor P. reichenowi. Rather, it was a new species more closely related to P. falciparum. They classified the new species as P. gaboni.
They have published their findings in the open access journal PLoS Genetics, under the title, “A New Malaria Agent in African Hominids.” You maybe asking why this is relevant to primatology? Many are against studies that use primates like chimpanzees because of ethical reasons. In situations like this, chimpanzees already infected with the parasite are useful to sample and study to shed light on the genomic adaptations of P. falciparum to humans and thus help in the discovery of new potential drug targets.
- Ollomo, B., Durand, P., Prugnolle, F., Douzery, E., Arnathau, C., Nkoghe, D., Leroy, E., & Renaud, F. (2009). A New Malaria Agent in African Hominids PLoS Pathogens, 5 (5) DOI: 10.1371/journal.ppat.1000446