Jun 24, 2009 - News

Malaria Has Driven Evolution In Humans And Baboons Alike


Malaria, a strong evolutionary pressure in humans, has also shaped the baboon genome, new research says.

Each year at least 350 million people around the world are infected by malaria parasites.   More than one million people, mainly young children, succumb to the disease.  

But these numbers would be even higher if it weren’t for genetic adaptations that have evolved in populations living in areas where malaria is a common threat.

Populations in Africa, Papua New Guinea and Brazil, for example, carry variations in the DARC gene that protect them from infection by the P.vivax malaria parasite.   DARC encodes the Duffy antigen, a protein exploited by P.vivax to enter red blood cells.

The protective variations prevent expression of the Duffy antigen by the DARC gene, leaving the parasite without a mode of entry to establish an infection.

Wild baboons are not usually infected by P.vivax or other malarial parasites that affect humans, but they are vulnerable to several closely related species.  

In a new report, Duke University researchers show that, like some humans, groups of yellow baboons from Kenya’s Amboseli National Park carry variants affecting DARC gene expression that provide protection against malaria. These findings, published this week in the journal Nature, mark the first time that a genetic variation has been linked to complex trait in a wild non-human primate population.

While the genetic variations that produce P. vivax malaria resistance in humans turn the DARC gene off, the variations that protect baboons from malaria actually increase the amount of protein made from the gene.  

This suggests the mechanisms of resistance to malaria infection are different between the two species.   Researchers, however, are still impressed with the parallel nature of these evolutionary adaptations.

“It’s a nice example of how — in the vastness of the genome — the same gene was modified in the same way in two different species to produce the same kind of resistance,” Greg Wray, senior author of the report, said in a statement.   “That’s a pretty remarkable thing when you think of all the different ways malaria resistance might have evolved.”

Gathering the data for this study was no easy feat.  

Graduate student Jenny Tung, lead author of the report, spent three summers in the East African savanna collecting DNA-laden baboon feces and darting animals in order to take blood samples.  

Wray says that the success of her work shows the power of combining fieldwork and genomic analysis.   According to him, the next challenge will be to understand how genetic variation contributes to complex behavioral traits like social status and aggression in wild primates.


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