Individual Malaria Parasite Behaviour Across Each Stage

The study showing individual malaria parasite behaviour across each stage of its complicated life cycle has been creating by scientists. Researchers used advanced single-cell technology; to isolate individual parasites and measure their gene activity. The result is the Malaria Cell Atlas, which gives the highest resolution view of malaria parasite gene expression to date; and monitors how individual parasites change as they develop in both the mosquito and human host.

Stages in the life cycle where each malaria parasite gene is likely to play a key role in parasite development. Knowing when and where a gene is active presents possible targets in the malaria life cycle that are important for developing much-needed antimalarial drugs, vaccines;  and transmission blocking strategies. Malaria affects more than 200 million people worldwide and caused nearly 450,000 deaths in 2017, the majority of which were children under five.

Individual malaria parasite

The malaria parasite’s ability to become resistant to multiple frontline drugs poses an enormous threat to malaria control. While advances are being made in vaccine development, a barrier to discovering new malaria drugs is the fact that the function of nearly half of the parasite’s genes are unknown. Understanding the diverse behaviours and gene activities of malaria parasites across their complicated life cycle is now possible with the freely available Malaria Cell Atlas data resource, creating by scientists at the Wellcome Sanger Institute.

But the atlas of gene activity that spans the complete life cycle of the malaria parasite. This is the first atlas of its kind for a single-cell organism. The malaria parasite’s life cycle is key to research into this disease and the Malaria Cell Atlas will help us truly understand the parasite in order to effectively control malaria. To create the map, the team isolated and measured the gene activity of 1,787 individual malaria parasites from 10 stages across the complete life cycle, spanning both the human and the mosquito.

Mosquitoes infected with malaria

For example, the researchers gave mosquitoes infected with malaria; a fake blood meal to capture the parasites they released in their spit in order to compare them to parasites; that remained in the salivary glands. The team then measured which genes were active in individual parasites across the entire life cycle. Knowing which genes are critical in each stage of the parasite’s life cycle presents weak spots and future drug targets.

Using the Malaria Cell Atlas, we’ve inferred the roles of parasite genes that until now were entirely unknown. We do this through ‘guilt-by-association; by looking at functions of previously studied genes; we can predict roles of unknown genes if they show similar activity patterns to known genes. This provides a new opportunity to find novel drug targets.