Out of Africa: Origins and evolution of the human malaria parasites Plasmodium falciparum and Plasmodium vivax

Dorothy E. Loy, Weimin Liu, Yingying Li, Gerald H. Learn, Lindsey J Plenderleith, Sesh A. Sundararaman, Paul Sharp, Beatrice H. Hahn

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Plasmodium falciparum and Plasmodium vivax account for more than 95% of all human malaria infections, and thus pose a serious public health challenge. To control and potentially eliminate these pathogens, it will be important to understand their origins and evolutionary history. Until recently, it was widely believed that P. falciparum had co-evolved with humans (and our ancestors) over millions of years, while P. vivax was assumed to have emerged in Southeast Asia following the cross-species transmission of a macaque parasite. However, the discovery of a multitude of Plasmodium species in chimpanzees and gorillas has refuted these theories and instead revealed that both P. falciparum and P. vivax evolved from parasites infecting wild-living African apes. It is now clear that P. falciparum resulted from a recent cross-species transmission of a gorilla parasite, while P. vivax emerged from an ancestral stock of parasites that infected chimpanzees, gorillas and humans in Africa, until the spread of the protective Duffy negative mutation eliminated P. vivax from human populations there. Although many questions remain concerning the biology and zoonotic potential of the relatives of P. falciparum and P. vivax infecting apes, comparative genomics, coupled with functional parasite and vector studies, are likely to yield new insights into ape Plasmodium transmission and pathogenesis that are relevant to the treatment and prevention of human malaria.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)87-97
Number of pages11
JournalInternational Journal For Parasitology
Issue number2-3
Early online date2 Jul 2016
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2017


  • malaria
  • African apes
  • Plasmodium falciparum
  • Plasmodium vivax
  • 23 Laverania
  • zoonotic transmission
  • evolution


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