'Little brown balls' tie malaria and algae to common ancestor

Jun 01, 2010
Under the microscope, Chromera looks like inconspicuous "little brown balls." Credit: Patrick Keeling

Inconspicuous "little brown balls" in the ocean have helped settle a long-standing debate about the origin of malaria and the algae responsible for toxic red tides, according to a new study by University of British Columbia researchers.

In an article published this week in the Early Edition, UBC Botany Prof. Patrick Keeling describes the genome of Chromera and its role in definitively linking the evolutionary histories of malaria and dinoflalgellate algae.

"Under the microscope, Chromera looks like boring little brown balls," says Keeling. "In fact, the ocean is full of little brown and green balls and they're often overlooked in favour of more glamorous organisms, but this one has proved to be more interesting than its flashier cousins."

First described in the journal Nature in 2008, Chromera is found as a symbiont inside corals. Although it has a compartment - called a plastid - that carries out like other algae and plants, Chromera is closely related to apicomplexan parasites - including malaria. This discovery raised the possibility that Chromera may be a "missing link" between the two.

Now Keeling, along with PhD candidate Jan Janouskovec, postdoctoral fellow Ales Horak and collaborators from the Czech Republic, has sequenced the plastid genome of Chromera and found features that were passed down to both apicomplexan and dinoflagellate plastids, linking the two lineages.

"These tiny organisms have a huge impact on humanity in very different ways," says Keeling. "The tool used by dinoflagellates and Chromera to do good - symbiosis with corals - at some point became an infection mechanism for apicomplexans like to infect healthy cells.

"Resolving their not only settles a long-standing scientific debate but could ultimately provide crucial information for tackling diseases and environmental concerns."

Explore further: DNA may have had humble beginnings as nutrient carrier

Related Stories

Solar-powered sea-slugs live like plants, prof says

Nov 25, 2008

The lowly sea slug, "Elysia chlorotica," may not seem like the most exciting of creatures, but don't be fooled: it behaves like a plant and is solar-powered, says a Texas A&M University biologist who has been studying these ...

Recommended for you

DNA may have had humble beginnings as nutrient carrier

16 hours ago

New research intriguingly suggests that DNA, the genetic information carrier for humans and other complex life, might have had a rather humbler origin. In some microbes, a study shows, DNA pulls double duty ...

Central biobank for drug research

16 hours ago

For the development of new drugs it is crucial to work with stem cells, as these allow scientists to study the effects of new active pharmaceutical ingredients. But it has always been difficult to derive ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

hazy_jane
not rated yet Jun 01, 2010
apicomplexans like malaria


They make it sound like malaria is not the disease (that is being caused) but the actual apicomplexan, surely that is Plasmodium...