The worlds deadliest malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum, sneaks past the human immune system with the help of a wardrobe of invisibility cloaks. If a persons immune cells learn to recognize one of the parasites many camouflage proteins, the surviving invaders can swap disguises and slip away again to cause more damage. Malaria kills an estimated 2.7 million people annually worldwide, 75 percent of them children in Africa.
Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) international research scholars in Australia have determined how P. falciparum can turn on one cloaking gene and keep dozens of others silent until each is needed in turn. Their findings, published in the December 28, 2005, issue of Nature, reveal the mechanism of action of the genetic machinery thought to be the key to the parasites survival.
A DNA sequence near the start of a cloaking gene, known as the genes promoter, not only turns up production of its protein, but also keeps all other cloaking genes under wraps, according to Alan Cowman and Brendan Crabb, HHMI international research scholars at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, Australia, and their co-authors. "The promoter is all you need for activation and silencing," Cowman said. "Its the main site of action where everything is happening."
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