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Gorillas gave us malaria, researchers say

Sept. 23, 2010
World Science staff

The par­a­site that causes ma­lar­ia, a scourge of the warm­er parts of the world, evolved from a go­ril­la par­a­site thou­sands of years ago, a new study con­cludes.

Sci­en­tists en­vi­sion that the find­ing might open the way for fur­ther in­sights in­to ma­lar­ia, per­haps through re­search in­to wheth­er cer­tain fac­tors might make go­ril­las more or less vul­ner­a­ble to ma­lar­i­a-like dis­eases.

Malaria is caused by a proto­zoan, or sin­gle-celled, para­site trans­mitted by fe­male Ano­phe­les mos­qui­tos. Above, a dia­gram of the life cycle of the para­site, which mul­ti­plies in the liver. As many as five re­lated para­sites cause the ill­ness, but one, the spe­cies Plas­mo­di­um fal­ci­pa­rum, is res­pon­sible for most of the cases and deaths. (Courtesy L.A. Dept. of Public Health)


Al­so, “we can check and see wheth­er trans­mis­sion to hu­mans takes place in ar­eas where peo­ple live near” go­ril­las, said Be­a­trice Hahn of the Uni­vers­ity of Al­a­bama, one of the in­ves­ti­ga­tors.

The find­ings are pub­lished in the Sept. 23 is­sue of the re­search jour­nal Na­ture.

Caused by a par­a­site trans­mit­ted by mos­qui­toes, ma­lar­ia kills an es­ti­mat­ed one mil­lion peo­ple yearly out of more than 300 mil­lion new cases, ac­cord­ing to the U.S. Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol. The ill­ness is marked by re­peat­ed at­tacks of chills and fe­ver. Most af­fect­ed are peo­ple in the trop­ics and subtrop­ics, as well as trav­el­ers to those re­gions. 

Health of­fi­cials have been work­ing to fight ma­lar­ia by hand­ing out bed nets to help pro­tect peo­ple from mos­qui­to bites at night. Sci­en­tists are al­so work­ing on a vac­cine.

The or­i­gin of the main hu­man ma­lar­ia par­a­site, Plas­mo­di­um fal­ci­parum, has been much de­bat­ed, with var­i­ous the­o­ries pro­pos­ing a chim­pan­zee, bonobo or an­cient hu­man or­i­gin. Hahn and col­leagues an­a­lyzed al­most 3,000 fe­cal sam­ples from wild-living Af­ri­can apes in a search for rel­a­tives of P. fal­ci­pa­rum, and con­clud­ed that the clos­est rel­a­tives were wild-living west­ern go­ril­las. The ac­tu­al ef­fects of these par­a­sites on apes are still un­known, Hahn said.

Trans­mis­sion be­tween go­ril­las and peo­ple “probably hap­pened any­where be­tween 5,000 and 300,000 years ago,” she added. 

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The parasite that causes malaria, a scourge of the warmer parts of the world, evolved from a gorilla parasite thousands of years ago, a new study concludes. Scientists envision that the finding might open the way for further insights into malaria, perhaps through research into whether certain factors might make gorillas more or less vulnerable to malaria-like diseases. Also, “we can check and see whether transmission to humans takes place in areas where people live near” gorillas, said Beatrice Hahn of the University of Alabama, one of the investigators. The findings are published in the Sept. 23 issue of the research journal Nature. Caused by a parasite transmitted by mosquitoes, malaria kills an estimated one million people yearly out of more than 300 million new cases, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. The illness is marked by repeated attacks of chills and fever. Most affected are people in the tropics and subtropics, as well as travelers to those regions. Health officials have been working to fight malaria by handing out bed nets to help protect people from mosquito bites at night. Scientists are also working on a vaccine. The origin of the human malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum, has been much debated, with various theories proposing a chimpanzee, bonobo or ancient human origin. Hahn and colleagues analyzed almost 3,000 fecal samples from wild-living African apes in a search for relatives of P. falciparum, and concluded that the closest relatives were wild-living western gorillas. The actual effects of these parasites on apes are still unknown, Hahn said. Transmission between gorillas and people “probably happened anywhere between 5,000 and 300,000 years ago,” she added.