Research Highlights

New way to rapidly identify gene function in malaria

Published online 15 August 2017

A combined genetic and mathematical modelling approach helps scientists interpret genetic information in the parasite population with high precision in considerably less time.

Sarah Elmeshad

An international collaboration between research teams from Saudi Arabia, Japan and the UK has led researchers to link genes to their function in malaria parasites within 14 to 18 weeks of starting the experiment. 

Understanding malaria genetics helps scientists identify possible treatments and vaccines for the parasite.

An experimental genetic-cross of parasite strains, high-throughput whole genome sequencing, which is DNA sequencing of the complete genome at high depth of sequence coverage, and a mathematical model is used to interpret genetic signatures in parasite populations1

Arnab Pain, a professor of pathogen genomics at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) and a co-leader of the research paper says that the process allows researchers to “link specific genes or mutations driving given characteristics in the parasite, using the naturally occurring variations in malaria strains.” 

Pain adds, “By applying this technique, we have identified a point mutation in a gene that makes the parasites grow much faster in the mouse body, hence linked to virulence, and we have also identified candidate genes that are the targets of malaria immunity and hence potential vaccine candidates for experimental validation in the future.”

Currently, the biological function of about 60% of the protein coding genes in malaria is unknown to scientists. 

This research, according to Pain, “gives us an immense opportunity to identify function of these genes and link them to a given biological characteristics, or phenotypes, of the parasites, using pre-existing natural genome variation in malaria strains.”

This research is important in the quest to find vaccinations and treatment of the virus caused by these parasites. According to Pain, “identifying weak spots in the life cycle of the malaria parasite is going to help in new ways to tackle the parasites including testing for new vaccine candidates.”


  1. Abkallo, H. M. et al. Rapid identification of genes controlling virulence and immunity in malaria parasites. PLOS Pathogens (2017)