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The origins and evolution of human malaria parasites
The two most widespread human malaria parasites, Plasmodium falciparum and Plasmodium vivax, are not very closely related and have been thought to have different histories. Until a few years ago, P. falciparum was widely regarded to have co-evolved with humans since the time of our common ancestor with chimpanzees, while P. vivax was thought to have jumped the species barrier from macaques in SE Asia. We have investigated the parasites infecting African apes (chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas), describing seven new species of Plasmodium. The evolutionary relationships among the ape and human parasites overturn previous theories about the origins of both P. falciparum and P. vivax. In ongoing work, we are studying factors that influence the host specificity of these parasites.
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