• Finding underlines importance of protecting wildlife populations to gain insights into pathogens that impact human populations
  • WCS researchers provided key data for study

NEW YORK (September 22, 2010)—Researchers from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, the Wildlife Conservation Society and others have discovered that the most common form of human malaria—Plasmodium falciparum—may have originated in western lowland gorillas.

This finding comes from a recent study that revealed the closest  genetic match between malaria that infects humans and malaria that infects gorillas. The result contradicts previous studies that point to chimpanzees as the potential reservoir of malignant malaria.

The study was published today in the journal Nature. This research was led by Dr. Beatrice Hahn and colleagues at University of Alabama at Birmingham. The authors also include Dave B. Morgan and Crickette M. Sanz of the Wildlife Conservation Society and Lincoln Park Zoo

Other authors on the study include: Weimin Liu, Yingying Li, Gerald H. Learn, Joel D. Robertson, Brandon F. Keele, George M. Shaw, Julian C. Raynor, Rebecca S. Rudicell of the University of Alabama; Jean-Bosco N. Ndjango of the University of Kisangani in the Democratic Republic of Congo; Sabrina Locatelli and Mary K. Gonder of the University of Albany; Philip J. Kranzusch of Harvard Medical School; Peter D. Walsh of VaccinApe (Bethesda, Maryland); Eric Delaporte and Martine Peeters of Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD) and University of Montpellier, France; Eitel Mpoudi-Ngole of Institut de Recherches Médicales et d’études des Plantes Médicinales Prévention du Sida ou Cameroun, Centre de Recherche Médicale, Yaoundé, Cameroon; Alexander V. Georgiev of Harvard University; Martin N. Muller of the University of New Mexico; and Paul M. Sharp of the University of Edinburgh.

The researchers used non-invasive methods to genetically screen wild populations of gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos across Africa by collecting more than 2,700 fecal samples from more than 50 sites, including the Goualougo Triangle and  Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park in northern Republic of Congo, two protected areas which the Wildlife Conservation Society helped to establish. Fecal samples from great apes in this region had the highest prevalence of Plasmodium organisms, indicating that this area is important for studies focusing on malaria in great apes.

“Protected areas that were established in large part to safeguard globally important populations of gorillas and chimpanzees are now yielding another important benefit,” said Dr. Dave Morgan, a WCS researcher and co-author on the new study. “By conserving these great ape populations, we also preserve the ability to gain valuable insights into the origin of pathogenic threats that impact human populations.”

The research team extracted genetic material from the fecal samples using a modified version of polymerase chain reaction (PCR). Specifically, the team used a highly accurate technique called single genome amplification (SGA) to examine Plasmodium sequences. This technique allowed researchers to avoid the possibility of the recombination of sequences that have confounded earlier studies.

Their findings revealed a strain of Plasmodium in gorillas that was a close match to malaria organisms that infect humans, suggesting that the pathogen originated in western gorilla populations and not chimpanzees as indicated in previous studies. Researchers found that more than half of all apes in some sites were infected.

The study also revealed an absence of malaria in samples from populations of bonobos (or pygmy chimpanzees) and eastern gorillas (including Grauer’s gorillas and mountain gorillas).

Malaria is a disease caused by the bite of the Anopheles mosquito which introduces the parasite belonging to the Plasmodium genus. Five types are known to infect humans, and one species—Plasmodium  falciparum—annually causes millions of malarial cases, with more than one million deaths every year.

John Delaney: (1-718-220-3275; jdelaney@wcs.org)
Stephen Sautner: (1-718-220-3682; ssautner@wcs.org)    

The Wildlife Conservation Society saves wildlife and wild places worldwide. We do so through science, global conservation, education and the management of the world's largest system of urban wildlife parks, led by the flagship Bronx Zoo. Together these activities change attitudes towards nature and help people imagine wildlife and humans living in harmony. WCS is committed to this mission because it is essential to the integrity of life on Earth.

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