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Genetic variability of Plasmodium falciparum underlies its transmission success and thwarts efforts to control disease caused by this parasite. Genetic variation in antigenic, drug resistance, and pathogenesis determinants is abundant, consistent with an ancient origin of P. falciparum, whereas DNA variation at silent (synonymous) sites in coding sequences appears virtually absent, consistent with a recent origin of the parasite. To resolve this paradox, we analyzed introns and demonstrated that these are deficient in single-nucleotide polymorphisms, as are synonymous sites in coding regions. These data establish the recent origin of P. falciparum and further provide an explanation for the abundant diversity observed in antigen and other selected genes.