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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Phylogenomic analyses of malaria parasites and evolution of their exported proteins

Christian Pick1, Ingo Ebersberger2, Tobias Spielmann3, Iris Bruchhaus3 and Thorsten Burmester1*

Author Affiliations

1 Institute of Zoology and Zoological Museum, University of Hamburg, Martin-Luther-King-Platz 3, D-20146 Hamburg, Germany

2 Center of Integrative Bioinformatics Vienna, University of Vienna, Medical University of Vienna, University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna, Dr.-Bohrgasse 9, 1030 Vienna, Austria

3 Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine, Bernhard-Nocht-Str. 74, D-20359 Hamburg, Germany

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2011, 11:167  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-11-167

Published: 15 June 2011

Abstract

Background

Plasmodium falciparum is the most malignant agent of human malaria. It belongs to the taxon Laverania, which includes other ape-infecting Plasmodium species. The origin of the Laverania is still debated. P. falciparum exports pathogenicity-related proteins into the host cell using the Plasmodium export element (PEXEL). Predictions based on the presence of a PEXEL motif suggest that more than 300 proteins are exported by P. falciparum, while there are many fewer exported proteins in non-Laverania.

Results

A whole-genome approach was applied to resolve the phylogeny of eight Plasmodium species and four outgroup taxa. By using 218 orthologous proteins we received unanimous support for a sister group position of Laverania and avian malaria parasites. This observation was corroborated by the analyses of 28 exported proteins with orthologs present in all Plasmodium species. Most interestingly, several deviations from the P. falciparum PEXEL motif were found to be present in the orthologous sequences of non-Laverania.

Conclusion

Our phylogenomic analyses strongly support the hypotheses that the Laverania have been founded by a single Plasmodium species switching from birds to African great apes or vice versa. The deviations from the canonical PEXEL motif in orthologs may explain the comparably low number of exported proteins that have been predicted in non-Laverania.