Bringing science and development together through news and analysis

  • Gorillas spread malaria to humans, say scientists

Shares

Gorillas are likely to have been the original source of malaria in humans, and the parasite probably jumped across the species about 5,000 years ago, say scientists, who will begin screening humans living near gorillas to see if the parasite is still moving between the populations today.

An international team of scientists working in Cameroon, Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), has shown that the parasite Plasmodium falciparum, which causes the most dangerous form of malaria, probably made a single jump from gorillas — not bonobos or chimpanzees as previously thought.

The discovery could influence the understanding of malaria in the same way that comparisons of the biology of HIV with its equivalents in apes have given scientists greater insight into the mechanisms behind the disease.

The team, whose work is published in Nature today (23 September), collected thousands of samples of ape faeces to screen for malaria parasites.

"By studying the closest relative to human P. falciparum in gorillas, I cannot imagine that this would not give important clues as to why the human parasite is so pathogenic [disease-causing]," lead researcher Beatrice Hahn, a professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), United States, told SciDev.Net.

Jean-Bosco N. Ngona, co-author of the study and a scientist at the University of Kisangani, DRC, said that more work is needed to understand whether there are malaria interactions between gorillas and humans today.

"It would give you a heads-up of what there might be to come," said Hahn. "As future eradication efforts bear fruit, you could generate a niche for a new parasite to move in."

Nathan Wolfe, director of the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative (GVFI), said the work was a "great finding ... we need to think about the possibility that some of these parasites might be entering the human population".

Such movements could go undetected in the developing world, he said, where diagnosing the presence of the malaria parasite is done by looking at its structure and shape rather than its genes.

"It's very likely if any of these other parasites was found in a human it would be misdiagnosed as P. falciparum," he said.

Link to full article in Nature.

Republish
We encourage you to republish this article online and in print, it’s free under our creative commons attribution license, but please follow some simple guidelines:
  1. You have to credit our authors.
  2. You have to credit SciDev.Net — where possible include our logo with a link back to the original article.
  3. You can simply run the first few lines of the article and then add: “Read the full article on SciDev.Net” containing a link back to the original article.
  4. If you want to also take images published in this story you will need to confirm with the original source if you're licensed to use them.
  5. The easiest way to get the article on your site is to embed the code below.
For more information view our media page and republishing guidelines.