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Malaria in the Americas presents a complex picture

Human migrations—from the prehistoric epoch to the present day—have extended cultures across the globe. With these travelers have come unwanted stowaways: mosquito-borne parasites belonging to the Plasmodium species— a group responsible for malaria worldwide.

Ananias Escalante, a researcher at Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute, as part of a team of collaborators from 10 countries, has been tracking the tenacious global spread of one of these malarial parasite species, Plasmodium vivax, the most prevalent cause of malaria in many countries outside Africa. In a new study, this international team explores the genetic diversity of P. vivax in the Americas and other areas of the world.

“The strongest results from the study are that the populations of this parasite in the Americas are highly diversified,” Escalante says. The analysis further found that, contrary to most existing assumptions, some genetic lineages in the Americas are very old, (though they may not have originated in the New World). Much of this genetic diversity had been missed in previous surveys, due to insufficient sampling of large regions of the continent.

The new findings—which recently appeared in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution, co-authored by ASU researchers Jesse Taylor and Maria A. Pacheco, together with a team of collaborators from 12 institutions —undermine earlier assumptions about the low genetic diversity of P. vivax across the Americas and raise new questions about the time of arrival and events leading to its New World introduction.

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