Scientists from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and collaborations made the first-ever large scale study of the gene function of the malarial parasite.

The result from the study of about half of the genes from the dimorphic unicellular parasite revealed two third of its genes being crucial for its optimal growth. It is the highest proportion reported till date from any organism.

The research was published online entitled "Functional Profiling of a Plasmodium Genome Reveals an Abundance of Essential Genes" on 13th July 2017.

The team designed a new method to decipher the roles of the genes in Plasmodium. The team worked with 2578 genes i.e. more than half of the genes of Plasmodium berghei  in its single blood stage. A barcode was assigned to every gene knockout and the next generation genome sequencing technology was used to count those barcodes.

Nearly half of the world’s population is at risk of malaria and more than 200 million people are infected each year. The disease caused the deaths of almost half a million people globally in 2015.

The barcode assigned genes in the modified malarial parasite if switched off, means the gene was not essential and in contrary the parasite number surged if the knocked out gene was essential.

A gene knockout (abbreviation: KO) is a genetic technique in which one of an organism's genes is made inoperative ("knocked out" of the organism). Also known as knockout organisms or simply knockouts, they are used in learning about a gene that has been sequenced, but which has an unknown or incompletely known function. - Wikipedia

According to Dr. Oliver Billker, joint lead author from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute says- "This work was made possible by a new method that enabled us to investigate more than 2,500 genes in a single study; more than the entire research community has studied over the past two decades. We believe that this method can be used to build a deep understanding of many unknown aspects of malaria biology, and radically speed up our understanding of gene function and prioritisation of drug targets."

Dr Julian Rayner, joint lead author from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute considers the results both good as well as bad. The bad aspects are the parasite easily gets rid of the drug targeted genes, and the good is that more of newly identified essential genes for potential targets for vaccines have been identified.

The research team systematically proved the parasite's capacity to get rid of the genes which expressed proteins that signals its presence to host's immune system. The parasite showed high degree of genetic redundancy presumed to be an effect of living in varied environmental conditions. This resistance already poses challenge in developing vaccinations against the malarial parasite.

Genetic redundancy refers to the common phenomenon that deleting or mutating a gene from a genome has minimal or no impact on the phenotype or fitness of the organism because of functional compensation conferred by one or more other genes. - PubMed

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