The human malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum is globally widespread, but its prevalence varies significantly between and even within countries. Most population genetic studies in P. falciparum focus on regions of high transmission where parasite populations are large and genetically diverse, such as sub-Saharan Africa. Understanding population dynamics in low transmission settings, however, is of particular importance as these are often where drug resistance first evolves. Here, we use the Pacific Coast of Colombia and Ecuador as a model for understanding the population structure and evolution of Plasmodium parasites in small populations harboring less genetic diversity. The combination of low transmission and a high proportion of monoclonal infections means there are few outcrossing events and clonal lineages persist for long periods of time. Yet despite this, the population is evolutionarily labile and has successfully adapted to changes in drug regime. Using newly sequenced whole genomes, we measure relatedness between 166 parasites, calculated as identity by descent (IBD), and find 17 distinct but highly related clonal lineages, six of which have persisted in the region for at least a decade. This inbred population structure is captured in more detail with IBD than with other common population structure analyses like PCA, ADMIXTURE, and distance-based trees. We additionally use patterns of intra-chromosomal IBD and an analysis of haplotypic variation to explore past selection events in the region. Two genes associated with chloroquine resistance, crt and aat1, show evidence of hard selective sweeps, while selection appears soft and/or incomplete at three other key resistance loci (dhps, mdr1, and dhfr). Overall, this work highlights the strength of IBD analyses for studying parasite population structure and resistance evolution in regions of low transmission, and emphasizes that drug resistance can evolve and spread in small populations, as will occur in any region nearing malaria elimination.
Copyright: © 2022 Carrasquilla et al. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.