Evolution of Plasmodium and the recent origin of the world populations of Plasmodium falciparum

Parassitologia. 1999 Sep;41(1-3):55-68.


We have investigated the evolution of Plasmodium parasites by analyzing DNA sequences of several genes. We reach the following conclusions: (1) The four human parasites, P. falciparum, P. malariae, P. ovale, and P. vivax are very remotely related to each other, so that their evolutionary divergence predates the origin of the hominids; several of these parasites became associated with the human lineage by lateral transfer from other hosts. (2) P. falciparum diverged from P. reichenowi about 8 million years ago, consistently with the time of divergence of the human lineage from the apes; a parsimonious inference is that falciparum has been associated with humans since the origin of the hominids. (3) P. malariae is genetically indistinguishable from P. brasilianum, a parasite of New World monkeys; and, similarly. (4) P. vivax is genetically indistinguishable from the New World monkey parasite P. simium. We infer in each of these two cases a very recent lateral transfer between the human and monkey hosts, and explore alternative hypotheses about the direction of the transfer. We have also investigated the population structure of P. falciparum by analyzing 10 genes and conclude that the extant world populations of this parasite have evolved from a single strain within the last several thousand years. The extensive polymorphisms observed in the highly repetitive central region of the Csp gene, as well as the apparently very divergent two classes of alleles at the Msa-1 gene, are consistent with this conclusion.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Amino Acid Sequence
  • Animals
  • Base Sequence
  • DNA, Protozoan / chemistry
  • Evolution, Molecular*
  • Hominidae
  • Humans
  • Merozoite Surface Protein 1 / genetics
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • Plasmodium / classification
  • Plasmodium / genetics*
  • Plasmodium falciparum / classification
  • Plasmodium falciparum / genetics
  • Polymorphism, Genetic
  • Sequence Alignment


  • DNA, Protozoan
  • Merozoite Surface Protein 1