Malaria parasites able to sense their host's calorie intake

Scientists have found that the odds of dying with a malaria infection are lower when the host eats lower amounts of food

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A new study has shown that the infectious agent responsible for malaria, the Plasmodium parasite, is able to sense and actively adapt to the host’s nutritional status. Using mouse models of malaria infection, scientists led by Professor Maria M. Mota from Instituto de Medicina Molecular in Lisbon (iMM Lisboa), and including researchers from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, found that mice who ate 30 per cent fewer calories had a significantly lower parasite load.

Plasmodium parasites reproduce inside red blood cells every 48 hours. The study in Nature reveals for the first time that the parasite’s rate of replication depends on the calories ingested by the host. This may ultimately dictate the outcome of a malaria infection: survival or death.

Even though malaria still kills one child every minute, the vast majority of those infected still survive, with roughly 200 million new infections every year.

“This finding alters our understanding of the dynamics of malaria infections in the field and might be highly relevant facing the alarming trend of global increased overweight versus underweight populations, including in malaria endemic regions.”

Professor Maria M. Mota From Instituto de Medicina Molecular in Lisbon and the lead author on the paper

Initial findings were greeted with some surprise and the study’s authors were excited by how quickly the parasites adapted.

There were two possibilities to explain the surprising observation: either the parasite was actively adapting when it moved to a host with a lower calorie intake, or instead was struggling to replicate due to the fact that some key nutrients were missing.

“This is one of the best examples demonstrating that malaria parasites sense and adapt to their host’s metabolic environment through transcriptional and developmental changes. Discovering precisely how this occurs may lead to new therapeutic intervention strategies to significantly reduce parasite burden.”

Professor Manuel Llinás Professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at Penn State University and an author on the paper

Researchers controlled the food intake of mice before infection with different Plasmodium parasites and studied their response. They found that parasites that were missing an enzyme called KIN had an impaired response to decreased nutrient availability, and replicated at the same speed, regardless of the food available to the mice.

These results imply that KIN acts as a nutrient sensor and major regulator of parasites’ ability to respond to nutritional changes, and that the malaria parasites adapt actively.

The data was also surprising in the context that KIN does not have many of the expected features of other nutrient sensor molecules shared between yeast, plants and mammals. As such, these findings are just the tip of the iceberg. Future studies in parasite adaptation to host nutritional states will investigate how KIN is controlled and what are its partners.

A better understanding of this system may help researchers design strategies that trick the parasite into slowing its replication to make it easier to control.

“This is the first time that anyone has seen that a parasite can actively restrict its growth to the environment and completely changes the way we look at parasite growth. While future research is still necessary to understand the full extent of these findings, it may well have implications not just for malaria, but also for other infectious diseases.”

Dr Oliver Billker From the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and an author on the paper

More information


This research was supported by the European Research Council, Fundacao para a Ciencia e Technologia, the European Commission, Wellcome, the MRC, EMBO, FCT and NIH.


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Selected websites

  • iMM Lisboa

    The Instituto de Medicina Molecular in Lisbon (Portugal) is a private non-profit research institute that offers a vibrant scientific environment where world-class ingenious scientists with an ambitious research portfolio are supported by state-of-the-art technology, aiming to maximize creativity towards discoveries without boundaries. In spite of iMM’s young age (created in 2002), several iMM findings, spanning from basic to translational research, are already being applied to improve human health.

  • The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute

    The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute is one of the world’s leading genome centres. Through its ability to conduct research at scale, it is able to engage in bold and long-term exploratory projects that are designed to influence and empower medical science globally. Institute research findings, generated through its own research programmes and through its leading role in international consortia, are being used to develop new diagnostics and treatments for human disease.

  • Wellcome

    Wellcome exists to improve health for everyone by helping great ideas to thrive. We’re a global charitable foundation, both politically and financially independent. We support scientists and researchers, take on big problems, fuel imaginations and spark debate