Athens, Ga. Long ago, when life on Earth was in its infancy, a group of small single-celled algae propelled themselves through the vast prehistoric ocean by beating whip like tails called flagella. It's a relatively unremarkable tale, except that now, more than 800 million years later, these organisms have evolved into parasites that threaten human health, and their algal past in the ocean may be the key to stopping them.
The organisms are called apicomplexa, but people know them better as the parasites that cause malaria and toxoplasmosis, serious diseases that infect millions of people every year, particularly in the developing world.
Now, researchers at the University of Georgia have discovered how an important structure inside these parasitic cells, which evolved from the algal ancestor millions of years ago, allows the cells to replicate and spread inside their hosts. Their research may soon lead to new therapies to halt these deadly pathogens before they cause disease.
In order to survive, the parasitic apicomplexa must invade an animal or human and force its way into the cells of its host. Once inside the host cell, the parasite begins to replicate into numerous daughter cells that in turn create additional copies, spreading the infection throughout the body.
In their study, published Dec. 11 in PLoS Biology, the researchers demonstrate that, during the process of replication, the parasite cell loads genetic material into its daughter cells via a strand of fiber that connects the two. By altering the genes for the components of the fiber in the laboratory, the researchers discovered that they could prevent parasite replication, making the parasite essentially harmless.
"These altered parasites can initially infect cells, but once we turn off the fiber genes, they cannot create new daughter cells and spread," said Maria Francia, lead author and doctoral candidate in the department of cellular biolog
|Contact: Boris Striepen|
University of Georgia