In the December issue of Nature Genetics, Philippe Gros and colleagues at McGill University, report that mice lacking a metabolic enzyme (pyruvate kinase) are protected from their malaria parasite. The global health impact of malaria is enormous, with an estimated 300-500 million clinical cases and 1 million deaths every year. In humans, susceptibility to infection with malaria parasites (Plasmodium species) is under the control of many genes. These determine the severity of disease and whether or not the disease is self-limited or lethal.
Disease-causing gene variants that affect the ability of human red blood cells to carry oxygen (sickle cell anemia and beta-thalassemia), and the hereditary deficiency in the metabolic enzyme G6PD, have a protective effect that may have resulted in these gene variants becoming prevalent in malarial areas (people are indeed subject to evolution by natural selection). This new research on the mouse model suggests that, somewhere in the world, variants of the pyruvate kinase enzyme may be protecting people from malaria.
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