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One gene 90 percent responsible for making common parasite dangerous

More than a decade of searching for factors that make the common parasite Toxoplasma gondii dangerous to humans has pinned 90 percent of the blame on just one of the parasite's approximately 6,000 genes.

The finding, reported in this week's issue of Science by researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and elsewhere, should make it easier to identify the parasite's most virulent strains and treat them. The results suggest that when a more harmful strain of T. gondii appears, approximately 90 percent of the time it will have a different form of the virulence gene than that found in the more benign strains of the parasite.

Infection with T. gondii, or toxoplasmosis, is perhaps most familiar to the general public from the widespread recommendation that pregnant women avoid changing cat litter. Cats are commonly infected with the parasite, as are some livestock and wildlife. T. gondii's most infamous relatives are the parasites that cause malaria.

Epidemiologists estimate that as many as one in every four humans is infected with T. gondii. Infections are typically asymptomatic, only causing serious disease in patients with weakened immune systems. In some rare cases, though, infection in patients with healthy immune systems leads to serious eye or central nervous system disease, or congenital defects or death in the fetuses of pregnant women. Historically, scientists have found strains of T. gondii difficult to tell apart, heightening the mystery of occasional serious infections in healthy people.

"Clinically it may be helpful to be able to test the form of the parasite causing the infection to determine if a case requires aggressive management and treatment or is unlikely to be a cause of serious disease," says senior author L. David Sibley, Ph.D. professor of molecular microbiology. "This finding will advance us toward that goal."

ROP18, the T. gondii virulence gene identified by researcher
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Contact: Michael C. Purdy
purdym@wustl.edu
314-286-0122
Washington University School of Medicine
14-Dec-2006


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