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African monkeys are infected by Plasmodium falciparum nonhuman primate-specific strains


Recent molecular exploration of the Plasmodium species circulating in great apes in Africa has revealed the existence of a large and previously unknown diversity of Plasmodium. For instance, gorillas were found to be infected by parasites closely related to Plasmodium falciparum, suggesting that the human malignant malaria agent may have arisen after a transfer from gorillas. Although this scenario is likely in light of the data collected in great apes, it remained to be ascertained whether P. falciparum-related parasites may infect other nonhuman primates in Africa. Using molecular tools, we here explore the diversity of Plasmodium species infecting monkeys in Central Africa. In addition to previously described Hepatocystis and Plasmodium species (Plasmodium gonderi and Plasmodium sp DAJ-2004), we have found one African monkey to be infected by a P. falciparum-related parasite. Examination of the nuclear and mitochondrial genomes of this parasite reveals that it is specific of nonhuman primates, indicating that P. falciparum-related pathogens can naturally circulate in some monkey populations in Africa. We also show that at least two distinct genetic entities of P. falciparum infect nonhuman primates and humans, respectively. Our discoveries bring into question the proposed gorilla origin of human P. falciparum.

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