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Am J Hum Genet. 1991 Feb;48(2):390-7.

Protection against malaria morbidity: near-fixation of the alpha-thalassemia gene in a Nepalese population.

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  • 1Department of Biology, University of Rome, Tor Vergata, Italy.


We have previously reported that the Tharu people of the Terai region in southern Nepal have an incidence of malaria about sevenfold lower than that of synpatric non-Tharu people. In order to find out whether this marked resistance against malaria has a genetic basis, we have now determined in these populations the prevalence of candidate protective genes and have performed in-vitro cultures of Plasmodium falciparum in both Tharu and non-Tharu red cells. We have found significant but relatively low and variable frequencies of beta-thal, beta S, G6PD (-), and Duffy (a-b-) in different parts of the Terai region. The average in-vitro rate of invasion and of parasite multiplication did not differ significantly in red cells from Tharus versus those from non-Tharu controls. By contrast, the frequency of alpha-thalassemia is uniformly high in Tharus, with the majority of them having the homozygous alpha-/alpha-genotype and an overall alpha-thal gene (alpha-) frequency of .8. We suggest that holoendemic malaria has caused preferential survival of subjects with alpha-thal and that this genetic factor has enabled the Tharus as a population to survive for centuries in a malaria-holoendemic area. From our data we estimate that the alpha-thal homozygous state decreases morbidity from malaria by about 10-fold. This is an example of selection evolution toward fixation of an otherwise abnormal gene.

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