Have scientists identified how P. falciparum jumped hosts 50,000 years ago?

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Scientists believe they have uncovered how Plasmodium falciparum jumped hosts 50,000 years ago; from gorillas to humans. The study, published in PLoS Biology, demonstrates a novel understanding of how pathogens can jump between species.

P. falciparum is the deadliest form of malaria and is responsible for approximately 99.7% of all cases in Africa. Its family, Laverania, is typically restricted to chimpanzees and gorillas. However, 50,000 years ago P. falciparum ‘mutated’. The resulting effect was a deadly zoonosis, implicated in causing approximately 435,000 deaths per year.

To identify how this process occurred, researchers from the Wellcome Sanger Institute (Cambridge, UK) and the University of Montpellier (France) used genome sequencing on all Laverania species. This identified the gene rh5, which produces the protein rh5 that is responsible for binding to basigin on human red blood cells, a process critical for P. falciparum invasion.

Using ancestral sequence reconstruction of the rh5 proteins, the researchers began to understand the molecular interactions that would have occurred 50,000 years ago.

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  1. Then we can infer that both Denisovans and Neanderthals would not have been plagued by falciparum both because of their geography and lack of appropriate basigin structure.

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