Ape parasite origins of human malaria virulence genes
Antigens encoded by the var gene family are major virulence factors of the human malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum, exhibiting enormous intra- and interstrain diversity. Here we use network analysis to show that var architecture and mosaicism are conserved at multiple levels across the Laverania subgenus, based on var-like sequences from eight single-species and three multi-species Plasmodium infections of wild-living or sanctuary African apes. Using select whole-genome amplification, we also find evidence of multi-domain var structure and synteny in Plasmodium gaboni, one of the ape Laverania species most distantly related to P. falciparum, as well as a new class of Duffy-binding-like domains. These findings indicate that the modular genetic architecture and sequence diversity underlying var-mediated host-parasite interactions evolved before the radiation of the Laverania subgenus, long before the emergence of P. falciparum.