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Mol Biol Evol. 1995 Jul;12(4):616-26.

Evolutionary origin of human and primate malarias: evidence from the circumsporozoite protein gene.

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Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of California, Irvine 92717, USA.


We have analyzed the conserved regions of the gene coding for the circumsporozoite protein (CSP) in 12 species of Plasmodium, the malaria parasite. The closest evolutionary relative of P. falciparum, the agent of malignant human malaria, is P. reichenowi, a chimpanzee parasite. This is consistent with the hypothesis that P. falciparum is an ancient human parasite, associated with humans since the divergence of the hominids from their closest hominoid relatives. Three other human Plasmodium species are each genetically indistinguishable from species parasitic to nonhuman primates; that is, for the DNA sequences included in our analysis, the differences between species are not greater than the differences between strains of the human species. The human P. malariae is indistinguishable from P. brasilianum, and P. vivax is indistinguishable from P. simium; P. brasilianum and P. simium are parasitic to New World monkeys. The human P. vivax-like is indistinguishable from P. simiovale, a parasite of Old World macaques. We conjecture that P. malariae, P. vivax, and P. vivax-like are evolutionarily recent human parasites, the first two at least acquired only within the last several thousand years, and perhaps within the last few hundred years, after the expansion of human populations in South America following the European colonizations. We estimate the rate of evolution of the conserved regions of the CSP gene as 2.46 x 10(-9) per site per year. The divergence between the P. falciparum and P. reichenowi lineages is accordingly dated 8.9 Myr ago. The divergence between the three lineages leading to the human parasites is very ancient, about 100 Myr old between P. malariae and P. vivax (and P. vivax-like) and about 165 Myr old between P. falciparum and the other two.

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