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 is 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, whilst P. vivax was assumed to have emerged in southeastern Asia following the cross-species transmission of a parasite from a macaque. However, the discovery of a multitude of Plasmodium spp. 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 parasite from a gorilla, whilst 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 P. falciparum- and P. vivax-like parasites 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.
Loy, D. E., Liu, W., Li, Y., Learn, G. H., Plenderleith, L. J., Sundararaman, S. A., … Hahn, B. H. (2017, February 1). Out of Africa: origins and evolution of the human malaria parasites Plasmodium falciparum and Plasmodium vivax. International Journal for Parasitology. Elsevier Ltd. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijpara.2016.05.008