ASU scientists narrow down origins of malaria

March 5, 2010

From King Tut to Alexander the Great to Mother Theresa, the mosquito-borne illness malaria has long been a menace to human civilization. Now, an international team of scientists, including Arizona State University School of Life Sciences professor Ananias Escalante, has attempted to better understand this scourge by tracing it back to its earliest origins.

In the largest study of its kind, Escalante, a researcher in the Biodesign Institute’s new Center for Evolutionary Medicine and Informatics, along with colleagues from 15 leading international institutions, looked at the origins of Plasmodium falciparum, the protozoa species that causes the majority of human malaria cases. The team examined the root cause of malaria amongst populations of chimpanzees, our closest primate relative, because infectious agents often become opportunistic, and over time, can leap from from one species to another, with devastating consequences. Download Full Image

"This research is an example of our long-term goal: establishing bridges among the anthropological, epidemiological, ecological, and evolutionary biology perspectives to address the origin and dynamic of infectious diseases," said Escalante.

By comparing the genetic sequences of the malaria culprit that infected two closely related wild chimpanzee species and bonobos, the team hoped to uncover the genetic origins of malaria. They found high levels of infection in the wild chimps. Their data has also reshaped the current thinking on the animal origins of human malaria. Results suggest that P. falciparum did not originate from chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes), but rather evolved in bonobos (Pan paniscus), from which it jumped to humans. The malaria infections found in bonobos do not seem cause any harm or illness to the animals.

“This is a very important study, because species origins of human diseases are critical to deciphering factors, genetic and social, that make such transfers possible,” said Sudhir Kumar, director of the Center for Evolutionary Medicine and Informatics.  Disease origins is a major research theme in this Biodesign center, and professor Escalante leads research and development efforts in this area.

"The finding of a number of “falciparum”-like species raises important and addressable questions about the mechanisms involved in the success of P. falciparum as a human parasite that may well be applicable to disease control," Escalante said.

Armed with new information, the team hopes to use this knowledge in the current battle to control malaria. With a detailed knowledge of the genetic underpinnings of this illness, that team may help to identify the genes responsible for eluding the human immune system or guide the development of new treatment strategies for this global threat to human health.

The study appears in the journal" target="_blank">PLoS Pathogens.

Joe Caspermeyer

Manager (natural sciences), Media Relations & Strategic Communications


Taking on the world’s biggest tech challenges

March 6, 2010

Leading futurists and technologists have worked with the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) to identify “Grand Challenges for Engineering in the 21st Century,” focusing on technological breakthroughs needed to build sustainable societies and improve the quality of life in a growing and increasingly complex world.

To help launch a call to action toward achieving these goals, the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University is organizing one of five regional NAE Grand Challenge Summits. Download Full Image

On April 8 and 9 at the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix, experts will explore critical needs to develop new medicines and biomedical technologies, make solar energy economical, find better ways to manage and recycle the increasing amount of waste materials produced by growing nations, and transform education to prepare the next generations for facing these and other challenges.

Those issues are among the NAE’s 14 Grand Challenges that also include ensuring access to clean water around the world, preventing nuclear terror, reducing vulnerability to natural disasters, improving health-care information systems and making cyberspace more secure, among others. 

“The past century has seen technological advancements that have improved life for many on the planet,” says ASU President Michael M. Crow. “But as remarkable as these achievements have been, we are challenged to now find even better and more sustainable solutions to our problems and to extend opportunities to more people to better their lives.”

Deirdre Meldrum, dean of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, says progress depends on fostering collaborations of engineers with scientists, policy makers, leaders in industry, economics, law, technology entrepreneurship, education, sociology and the humanities.

“All of that starts with a call for public awareness about how important it is for us to overcome these challenges, and giving the public a voice in decision-making,” she says. “That’s what we hope to begin with this summit.”

Featured speakers will be:

• Leland Hartwell, Nobel Laureate in Physiology and Medicine, and President and Director of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center

• Kristina M. Johnson, Undersecretary of Energy, U.S. Department of Energy

• Pamela Matson, Chester Naramore Dean of the School of Earth Sciences, Stanford University

• James Duderstadt, President Emeritus and University Professor of Science and Engineering, University of Michigan

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NAE Summit Series

The first of the NAE’s regional summits was March3-5 in North Carolina, organized by Duke University and North Carolina State University.

Following the Phoenix Summit will be a Chicago Summit, April 21 and 22, organized by the Illinois Institute of Technology, Northwestern University, the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

A Boston Summit will be April 21, organized by Wellesley and Babson colleges and the Olin College of Engineering. The University of Washington is organizing a Seattle Summit on May 2 and 3.

A National Summit will be Oct. 6 and 7 in Los Angeles, organized by the University of Southern California Viterbi School of Engineering, Duke University and Olin College of Engineering.

Career Fair and Design Competition

The Phoenix Summit will include a Career Fair April 8, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., providing a venue for networking and job recruitment in technology, engineering and science fields.

Employers can meet with graduate and undergraduate students, as well as experienced entry-level professionals, from Arizona, California, Colorado, Kansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Nevada, Oklahoma, Texas and Utah.

Each regional Grand Challenge Summit Series site is also conducting a student design competition with the theme “Improving Human Wellbeing in the Developing World.”

Students will exhibit posters related to any of the 14 NAE Grand Challenges. The posters will describe proposals for practical and affordable technology, a process or a product that could be used to address challenges in nutrition, agriculture, diagnostics, drug delivery, disease vector control, urban design, solar energy, water access, water treatment and other needs in the developing world.

There will be cash prizes for projects winning the top three awards. 

First- place poster winners from each of the regional competition sites will be invited to submit their concepts for entry at the national competition at the NAE’s National Grand Challenge Summit in Los Angeles, in the fall.  

Joe Kullman

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering