No idle chatter: Study finds malaria parasites 'talk' to each other

May 15, 2013, Walter and Eliza Hall Institute
No idle chatter: Study finds malaria parasites 'talk' to each other
Professor Alan Cowman (left) and Dr. Neta Regev-Rudzki from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Melbourne, Australia, have made the surprise discovery that malaria parasites can 'talk' to each other. This social behavior ensures the parasite's survival and improves its chances of being transmitted to other humans. Credit: Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research

Melbourne scientists have made the surprise discovery that malaria parasites can 'talk' to each other – a social behaviour to ensure the parasite's survival and improve its chances of being transmitted to other humans.

The finding could provide a niche for developing antimalarial drugs and vaccines that prevent or treat the disease by cutting these communication networks.

Professor Alan Cowman, Dr Neta Regev-Rudzki, Dr Danny Wilson and colleagues from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in collaboration with Professor Andrew Hill from the University of Melbourne's Bio21 Institute and Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology showed that malaria parasites are able to send out messages to communicate with other malaria parasites in the body. The study was published today in the journal Cell.

Professor Cowman said the researchers were shocked to discover that malaria parasites work in unison to enhance 'activation' into sexually mature forms that can be picked up by mosquitoes, which are the carriers of this deadly disease.

Professor Alan Cowman (left) and Dr. Neta Regev-Rudzki from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Melbourne, Australia, have made the surprise discovery that malaria parasites can 'talk' to each other. This social behavior ensures the parasite's survival and improves its chances of being transmitted to other humans. Credit: Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research

"When Neta showed me the data, I was absolutely amazed, I couldn't believe it," Professor Cowman said. "We repeated the experiments many times in many different ways before I really started to believe that these parasites were signalling to each other and communicating. But we came to appreciate why the malaria parasite really needs this mechanism – it needs to know how many other parasites are in the human to sense when is the right time to activate into sexual forms that give it the best chance of being transmitted back to the mosquito."

Malaria kills about 700,000 people a year, mostly children aged under five and pregnant women. Every year, hundreds of millions of people are infected with the malaria parasite, Plasmodium, which is transmitted through . It is estimated that half the world's population is at risk of contracting malaria, with the disease being concentrated in tropical and subtropical regions including many of Australia's near neighbours.

The visualization reconstructs infection of a human child via mosquito bite, through invasion of cellular tissues including the liver and blood. All features are to scale, including mosquito, blood vessels, human cells and parasite. The visualization is the first of its kind to present live-behavior models, including the mosquito's bite technique, parasite invasion method, and patterns of blood flow. Credit: Drew Berry, WEHI.TV, Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research

Dr Regev-Rudzki said the malaria parasites inside red blood cells communicate by sending packages of DNA to each other during the blood stage of infection. "We showed that the parasites inside infected red blood cells can send little packets of information from one parasite to another, particularly in response to stress," she said.

The communication network is a social behaviour that has evolved to signal when the parasites should complete their lifecycle and be transmitted back to a mosquito, Dr Regev-Rudzki said. "Once they receive this information, they change their fate – the signals tell the parasites to become sexual forms, which are the forms of the malaria parasite that can live and replicate in the mosquito, ensuring the parasites survives and is transmitted to another human."

Professor Cowman said he hopes to see the discovery pave the way to new or vaccines for preventing malaria. "This discovery has fundamentally changed our view of the malaria parasite and is a big step in understanding how the survives and is transmitted," he said. "The next step is to identify the molecules involved in this signalling process, and ways that we could block these communication networks to block the transmission of malaria from the human to the mosquito. That would be the ultimate goal."

Explore further: Bacterial infection in mosquitoes renders them immune to malaria parasites

Related Stories

Bacterial infection in mosquitoes renders them immune to malaria parasites

May 9, 2013
Scientists funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health, have established an inheritable bacterial infection in malaria-transmitting Anopheles mosquitoes ...

Malaria parasite protein identified as potential new target for drug treatment

April 25, 2013
Scientists have discovered how a protein within the malaria parasite is essential to its survival as it develops inside a mosquito. They believe their findings identify this protein as a potential new target for drug treatments ...

Malaria study suggests drugs should target female parasites

November 28, 2012
Fresh insight into the parasite that causes malaria suggests a new way to develop drugs and vaccines to tackle the disease.

Gene clues point to Cambodia for resistant malaria

April 28, 2013
Gene analysis of malaria parasites has pinpointed western Cambodia as the hotspot of strains that are dangerously resistant to artesiminin, the frontline drug against the disease, scientists said on Sunday.

Recommended for you

Secrets of longevity protein revealed in new study

January 17, 2018
Named after the Greek goddess who spun the thread of life, Klotho proteins play an important role in the regulation of longevity and metabolism. In a recent Yale-led study, researchers revealed the three-dimensional structure ...

Weight flux alters molecular profile, study finds

January 17, 2018
The human body undergoes dramatic changes during even short periods of weight gain and loss, according to a study led by researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

The HLF gene protects blood stem cells by maintaining them in a resting state

January 17, 2018
The HLF gene is necessary for maintaining blood stem cells in a resting state, which is crucial for ensuring normal blood production. This has been shown by a new research study from Lund University in Sweden published in ...

Magnetically applied MicroRNAs could one day help relieve constipation

January 17, 2018
Constipation is an underestimated and debilitating medical issue related to the opioid epidemic. As a growing concern, researchers look to new tools to help patients with this side effect of opioid use and aging.

Researchers devise decoy molecule to block pain where it starts

January 16, 2018
For anyone who has accidentally injured themselves, Dr. Zachary Campbell not only sympathizes, he's developing new ways to blunt pain.

Scientists unleash power of genetic data to identify disease risk

January 16, 2018
Massive banks of genetic information are being harnessed to shed new light on modifiable health risks that underlie common diseases.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.