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Science Without Borders. Geneticist Dyann Wirth: Understanding the DNA of Parasites. Dyann Wirth Probes Parasites. Geneticist Wirth wants to wipe out malaria by overcoming a parasite’s drug resistance. Plasmodia Are parasitic protozoans Cause malaria Infect humans and mosquitoes.

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science without borders

Science Without Borders

Geneticist Dyann Wirth:

Understanding the DNA of Parasites

dyann wirth probes parasites
Dyann Wirth Probes Parasites

Geneticist Wirth wants to wipe out malaria by overcoming a parasite’s drug resistance.

  • Plasmodia
  • Are parasitic protozoans
  • Cause malaria
  • Infect humans and mosquitoes


How do Plasmodia survive antimalarial medicines?

answer genetic adaptation

Run-ins with



Altered DNA

passed on

to offspring


with human





Encounters with

body chemistry

of mosquito

Answer: Genetic adaptation

DNA: altered over time by adaptation to many events

deadly differences
Deadly Differences
  • Four species of Plasmodium parasite cause malaria in humans
  • Plasmodium falciparum

How can scientists pinpoint what makes Plasmodium falciparum so deadly?

  • Most widespread and dangerous
  • Accounts for 80% of human malarial infections and 90% of deaths
exploring parasite secrets
Exploring Parasite Secrets
  • Scientists study genetic variation:
  • Across populations
  • Single-nucleotide
  • polymorphism (SNP)
  • Patterns of SNPs

Why do scientists study more than one genome?

Give an example of a SNP.

What is the name for these DNA patterns?

global team science
Global Team Science

Exploration begins with patient volunteers from malaria clinics on 3 continents

plasmodia parasites in human blood


South America


Plasmodia Parasites in Human Blood

Malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum growing inside human red blood cells

wirth s experiments










Extract DNA sequences of parasite from blood of volunteers

Recurring SNPs are

promising targets for

vaccines and new drugs

Wirth’s Experiments
  • Wirth’s method identifies
  • Differences and commonalities
  • Genetic adaptation across populations
  • Promising targets for intervention
the human touch
The Human Touch

Human activity can spread drug resistance

How do humans help mosquitoes spread resistance across extremely wide geographic areas?

What human-made environments make great breeding sites for mosquito larvae?

the midas touch
The MIDAS Touch

Model of Infectious Disease Agent Study

  • Brings together international network of scientists from different fields
  • Simulates infectious disease outbreaks
  • Identifies most effective interventions
  • Prepares public health experts to control infectious disease disasters before they happen
research applications
Research Applications

How might knowledge that Wirth and her team have gained about Plasmodium DNA be used to develop an early warning system for malaria drug resistance?