Sequenced malaria genome exposes novel drug targets

The genetic code of the malaria parasite has been cracked and is already revealing novel drug targets that could lead to effective treatment of the disease.

An international effort was launched in 1996 to sequence the genome of the most deadly malaria species, Plasmodium falciparum. Botanists from the University of Melbourne are now leading the charge to help find safe and effective anti-malarial drugs.

Professor Geoff McFadden and his team from the University of Melbourne recently discovered that the malaria parasite evolved from a plant-like organism that survived by photosynthesis. It is this plant-like part that, so far, appears to be a depot for anti-malarial drug targets. Consequently, existing safe herbicides are providing leads for some of these new drugs. So too are antibiotics.

"Our role in this international collaboration is to find the genes associated with the relict plant component of the parasite. This has been a key success of the study. At least 12 new drug targets have been identified so far from the plant-like genes" says McFadden.

The collaboration's research, including the complete sequence of the malaria parasite, is published in the latest edition of the prestigious journal Nature.

Human malaria is caused by infection with parasites of the Plasmodium species that are transmitted by Anopheles mosquitoes.

Plasmodium species are members of large group numbering over 5000 species that harbour a relict chloroplast, the part of a plant that carries out photosynthesis. Scientists have determined this relict, called the apicoplast, is essential for the malaria parasite's survival, but its exact role is unclear.

McFadden's team has gone someway to unraveling the apicoplast's mysteries. They have revealed that it is the apicoplast that houses the herbicide-sensitive pathways and compounds with potential for drug therapy. Stuart Ralph, a PhD student in McFadden's lab, has helped identify th

Contact: Jason Major
University of Melbourne

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