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Mol Biol Evol. 2015 May;32(5):1354-64. doi: 10.1093/molbev/msv005. Epub 2015 Jan 13.

A new method for estimating species age supports the coexistence of malaria parasites and their Mammalian hosts.

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Institute for Genome Sciences, University of Maryland School of Medicine Department of Microbiology and Immunology, University of Maryland School of Medicine
Institute for Genome Sciences, University of Maryland School of Medicine.
National Center for Biotechnology Information, National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD.
Department of Applied Mathematics and Statistics, University of Maryland, College Park.


Species in the genus Plasmodium cause malaria in humans and infect a variety of mammals and other vertebrates. Currently, estimated ages for several mammalian Plasmodium parasites differ by as much as one order of magnitude, an inaccuracy that frustrates reliable estimation of evolutionary rates of disease-related traits. We developed a novel statistical approach to dating the relative age of evolutionary lineages, based on Total Least Squares regression. We validated this lineage dating approach by applying it to the genus Drosophila. Using data from the Drosophila 12 Genomes project, our approach accurately reconstructs the age of well-established Drosophila clades, including the speciation event that led to the subgenera Drosophila and Sophophora, and age of the melanogaster species subgroup. We applied this approach to hundreds of loci from seven mammalian Plasmodium species. We demonstrate the existence of a molecular clock specific to individual Plasmodium proteins, and estimate the relative age of mammalian-infecting Plasmodium. These analyses indicate that: 1) the split between the human parasite Plasmodium vivax and P. knowlesi, from Old World monkeys, occurred 6.1 times earlier than that between P. falciparum and P. reichenowi, parasites of humans and chimpanzees, respectively; and 2) mammalian Plasmodium parasites originated 22 times earlier than the split between P. falciparum and P. reichenowi. Calibrating the absolute divergence times for Plasmodium with eukaryotic substitution rates, we show that the split between P. falciparum and P. reichenowi occurred 3.0-5.5 Ma, and that mammalian Plasmodium parasites originated over 64 Ma. Our results indicate that mammalian-infecting Plasmodium evolved contemporaneously with their hosts, with little evidence for parasite host-switching on an evolutionary scale, and provide a solid timeframe within which to place the evolution of new Plasmodium species.


Drosophila; Plasmodium; malaria; molecular clock; regression; speciation dates; total least squares

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