A research effort led by scientists at the National Institute of Allergy
and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) has produced the first high-resolution genetic
map of Plasmodium falciparum, the deadliest malaria parasite. The map
along with a report describing its construction appears in this week's journal
"NIAID has made sequencing disease-causing microbes a priority, with an eye
toward finding new targets for improved diagnostic tools, therapies and
vaccines to relieve the burden of important infectious diseases," comments
Anthony S. Fauci, M.D., NIAID director. "This map provides the scaffolding to
accelerate efforts to sequence the entire genome of one of our greatest
infectious foes, the malaria parasite." Complete sequences for two of the
parasite's 14 chromosomes have recently been reported.
"Equally important," Dr. Fauci adds, "this genetic map, constructed from a
classical genetic cross, will serve as a bridge between the genomic
information and the biology of the parasite." As such, the map can help locate
genes important to drug resistance and disease severity, for example.
Thomas E. Wellems, M.D., Ph.D., and Xin-zhuan Su, Ph.D., section chief and
staff scientist, respectively, in NIAID's Laboratory of Parasitic Diseases,
headed the study. Input and analysis by scientists from the National Center
for Biotechnology Information at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and
from the People's Republic of China were key to the effort.
Each year, P. falciparum malaria affects up to 500 million people
worldwide. More than 2 million of those people, primarily young children in
sub-Saharan Africa, die, and many more are left debilitated by the disease.
Malaria researchers have stepped up efforts to understand the genetics and
genome of the parasite, hoping to generate new strategies to fight this
The team constructed their genetic map by crossing a drug-resistant type of
P. falciparum with a drug-sensitive type. Examination of the resulting 35
progeny parasites yielded a wealth of information.
According to Dr. Wellems, small repeating patterns of the four chemical
subunits of DNA pepper each and every one of the malaria chromosomes. These
can be used to pinpoint important traits that come from each parent. When the
mapping was complete, says Dr. Wellems, "It had all come together like pieces
of a jigsaw puzzle."
They identified 901 markers that could be naturally sorted into 14 groups,
correlating closely to the physical sizes of the 14 chromosomes of the
parasite. This is one of the most detailed genetic maps of a eukaryotic
Dr. Wellems has focused much of his laboratory's research on understanding
the basis of resistance to chloroquine, an inexpensive malaria drug that is no
longer effective in many areas of the world where drug-resistant strains have
emerged and now predominate. "One way we can use this new information is to
uncover the genetic changes that accompany the expanding problem of drug
resistance and try to stay one step ahead of the parasite," he says.
Recently, scientists at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, reported that
they had constructed an optical map of the P. falciparum genome. That
map-a physical map that orders snipped DNA fragments of the chromosomes-and
the genetic map provide complementary information to genome sequencers. But
because the genetic map was derived from an actual breeding between parasites
with different traits, it also provides insight into the biology of the
parasite. It can, for example, help localize genes important in how drug
resistance evolves and in how human infections develop. The map also will shed
light on the clinical implications of genetic differences seen in parasites
from various geographic regions around the world.
The new genetic map is posted on the National Center for Biotechnology
Information Web site (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/). Dr.
Wellems believes that Internet communication and information flow is important
for "promoting a research environment in which new ideas about malaria will
more readily evolve and synergize."
"I completely concur with Dr. Wellems' vision," comments David J. Lipman,
M.D., NCBI director. "This genetic map is on the Web for the entire malaria
research community. The genetic and computational work of NCBI biologists John
Wootton and Chuong Huynh, in close collaboration with the NIAID group, is an
important example of NCBI's continuing commitment to the public efforts
against malaria and other infectious diseases."
NIAID conducts and supports research to prevent, diagnose and treat
illnesses such as HIV disease and other sexually transmitted diseases,
tuberculosis, malaria, asthma and allergies. NCBI, a Center within the
National Library of Medicine, creates public databases, conducts research in
computational biology, and develops software tools for analyzing genome data.
NIH is an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Press releases, fact sheets and other NIAID-related materials are available
on the NIAID Web site at http://www.niaid.nih.gov/.
E Pennisi. Malaria genome comes into view. Science 286:1263-65