With over 200 million infections and up to one million deaths every year, malaria remains one of the most devastating infectious diseases affecting humans. Over the last few years, complete genome sequences of both human and non-human malaria parasite species have become available, adding comparative genomics to the toolbox of molecular biologists to study the genetic basis of human virulence. In this thesis, I computationally compared the published genomes of seven malaria parasite species with the aim to gain new insights into genes underlying human virulence. This comparison was performed using two complementary approaches. In the first approach, I used whole-genome synteny analysis to find genes present in human but not non-human malaria parasites. In the second approach, I first clustered virulence-associated genes into gene families and then examined these gene families for species-specific differences. Both comparisons resulted in interesting gene lists. Synteny analysis identified three key enzymes of the thiamine (vitamin B1) biosynthesis pathway to be present in human but not rodent malaria parasites, indicating that these two groups of parasites differ in their ability to synthesize vitamin B1 de novo. My gene family classification exposed within the largest and highly divergent surface antigen gene family pir a group of unusually well conserved orthologs, which should be considered as high-priority targets for experimental characterization and vaccine development. In conclusion, this thesis highlights genes and pathways that are different between human and non-human malaria parasites and therefore could play important roles in human virulence. Experimental studies can now be initiated to confirm virulence-associated functions and to explore their potential value for drug and vaccine development.
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Thesis advisor: Chen, Nansheng
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