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Major subpopulations of Plasmodium falciparum in sub-Saharan Africa

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Science  23 Aug 2019:
Vol. 365, Issue 6455, pp. 813-816
DOI: 10.1126/science.aav5427

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Ebb and flow of parasite populations

The population genetics of the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum across Africa is poorly understood but important to know for grasping the risks and dynamics of the spread of drug resistance. Harnessing the power of genomics, Amambua-Ngwa et al. of the Plasmodium Diversity Network Africa found substantial population structure within Africa that is consistent with human and vector population divergence (see the Perspective by Sibley). Specific signatures of selection by antimalarial drugs were detected, along with indications of the effect of colonization and slavery. Furthermore, whole-genome sequencing showed that there is extensive gene flow among the different regions and that Ethiopia has a distinctive population of P. falciparum, which may be indicative of coexistence with another malaria parasite, P. vivax.

Science, this issue p. 813; see also p. 752

Abstract

Understanding genomic variation and population structure of Plasmodium falciparum across Africa is necessary to sustain progress toward malaria elimination. Genome clustering of 2263 P. falciparum isolates from 24 malaria-endemic settings in 15 African countries identified major western, central, and eastern ancestries, plus a highly divergent Ethiopian population. Ancestry aligned to these regional blocs, overlapping with both the parasite’s origin and with historical human migration. The parasite populations are interbred and shared genomic haplotypes, especially across drug resistance loci, which showed the strongest recent identity-by-descent between populations. A recent signature of selection on chromosome 12 with candidate resistance loci against artemisinin derivatives was evident in Ghana and Malawi. Such selection and the emerging substructure may affect treatment-based intervention strategies against P. falciparum malaria.

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