New research shows bat malaria parasites linked with rodentsS

“Bats, which are important reservoir hosts for many pathogens, particularly viruses, have been hosts to malaria parasites for more than a century,” says Susan Perkins, an associate curator in the American Museum of Natural History's Division of Invertebrate Zoology. “Understanding the evolution of malaria parasites in bats and other animals, and how they fit into the tree of life, is key to understanding this important human disease.”

Pictured: This Peter's dwarf epauletted fruit bat (Micropteropus pusillus) is shown with the Hepatocystis malaria parasite (inset). © Juliane Schaer

New research by an international team co-led by the American Museum of Natural History shows a surprising diversity of malaria parasites in West African bats as well as new evidence of evolutionary jumps to rodent hosts.

Led by Susan Perkins and Juliane Schaer, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology and the Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin, the new study also offers a new look at the evolution of rodent malaria, which is commonly used to model human malaria in laboratory studies. The results will be published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Malaria is caused by a handful of species of parasites in the genus Plasmodium through the bite of mosquitos and remains a widespread vector-borne infectious disease, sickening almost half a billion people every year around the planet. Experimental research on drugs, immunology, and the development of malaria is typically done on related Plasmodium species that infect rodents, including laboratory-reared mice. The parasites’ natural hosts are African thicket rats that use shrubs and trees as habitat.

To further investigate how bats fit into this picture, the researchers surveyed more than 250 bats in remote forest ecosystems in Liberia, Guinea, and Cote d’Ivoire in Western Africa. They found a vast diversity of malaria parasites that included not just the Plasmodium species, but also members of three other genera. The DNA from several genes of the bat parasites was sequenced at the Museum’s Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics, resulting in the most comprehensive evolutionary tree of life for malaria parasites of bats to date.

New research shows bat malaria parasites linked with rodentsS

The cyclops roundleaf bat (Hipposideros cyclops), a species found in the forests of equatorial Africa, is shown here with its malaria parasite Plasmodium cyclopsi (inset). © Natalie Weber

The authors report that two parasites, Plasmodium voltaicum and Plasmodium cyclopsi, show patterns of evolutionary jumps from the rodent lineage into bats and then likely a reverse jump, with a bat parasite re-infecting rodent hosts. The authors suggest that the bat hosts, which roost in trees, may have been exposed to the same mosquito vectors that transfer the parasites between the tree-dwelling rodent hosts.

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