Efforts to treat and prevent malaria, one of the world's most pressing health problems, just got a major boost. Two teams of scientists have decoded all the genes of the parasite and the mosquito associated with the most severe form of the disease.
The achievement gives researchers an important framework for exploring new ways of combating malaria by blocking transmission of the disease at the molecular and cellular levels.
A series of papers published this week in the journal Nature reveal the complete genome sequence of the single-celled malarial parasite Plasmodium falciparum.
At the same time, a team of 123 researchers from nearly a dozen countries has unraveled the genome of the mosquito Anopheles gambiae, the species most often responsible for transmitting malaria to people. Their results are reported this week in Science.
Understanding these two genomes and what functions their individual genes control could lead to the development of new drugs, insecticides, and possibly a vaccine against malaria.
Public Health Threat
The need is acute because of malaria's heavy toll and growing menace.
According to the World Heath Organization (WHO), at least a million people die of malaria each year, and millions more suffer its ill effects. The group most affected is young children in sub-Sahara Africa, where 90 percent of all malaria cases occur.
Public health initiatives years ago essentially wiped out malaria in more temperate regions of the world. The problem has been tougher to tackle in Africa and other tropical and sub-tropical regions, however, because of rapid population growth in the countries most affected and the mosquito's increased resistance to drugs (such as chloriquine) and insecticides (such as DDT) commonly used to fight the disease.
Nature and Science agreed to publish the genome-sequencing results simultaneously because together they represent a milestone in malaria research.
Both journals include additional research papers describing various aspects of the complex process whereby P. falciparum and A. gambiae act in concert to infect humans, with often deadly results [see sidebar].
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