Malaria Barcode Can Help Track and Contain Outbreaks

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Researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine have identified a genetic marker that could track spread of malaria.

Increasing population mobility across the world has made the threat of malaria even greater as this increases the possibility of re-introducing parasites to elimination areas. Researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) have identified a simple genetic marker that gives us the ability to quickly and simply identify the geographic source of outbreaks. Being able to trace infection back to specific geographic locations is particularly important in regards to the spread of drug resistant strains of malaria.

From just a simple blood sample, the genetic marker can be identified amongst the genetic sequence of the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum. the researchers looked at over 700 Plasmodium falciparum parasites taken from 14 countries across West Africa, East Africa, Oceania, and South America. Noticing a number of short genetic sequences that different between parasites from different geographies in the mitochondria and apicoplasts cells, a genetic mar barcode was designed.

“Being able to determine the geographic origin of malaria parasites has enormous potential in containing drug-resistance and eliminating malaria. Our work represents a breakthrough in the genetic barcoding of P. falciparum, as it reveals very specific and accurate sequences for different geographic settings. We are currently extending the malaria barcode to include other populations, such as India, Central America, southern Africa and the Caribbean, and plan to include genetic markers for other types malaria, such as P. vivax.”

In the past we have seen the success of genetic markers in the tracking and elimination of polio. But previous malaria markers have relied on the identifying of DNA sequences found in cell neucleus of parasites, which resulted in too much genetic variation between parasites. The new barcode however relies on mitochondria and apicoplasts wqhich see far less genetic variation over generations. The result is a stable, and 92% predictive barcode.

The current barcode is however limited by the scope of the current study. Without substantial analysis of parasites from the Indian sub-continent, Central America, southern Africa, and the Caribbean the potential to track, control and eradicate malaria is a long way off.

Find the research here.

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