Don’t judge a parasite by its appearance

The malaria parasite and other apicomplexan parasites are not as closely related to each other as originally thought.
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An apicomplexan parasite, Ancora sagittata. Image credit: Timur G. Simdyanov (CC-BY 4.0)

Microscopic parasites known collectively as apicomplexans are responsible for several infectious diseases in humans including malaria and toxoplasmosis. The cells of the malaria parasite and many other apicomplexans contain compartments known as cryptic chloroplasts that produce molecules the parasites need to survive. Cryptic chloroplasts are similar to the chloroplasts found in plant cells, but unlike plants the compartments in apicomplexans are unable to harvest energy from sunlight.

Since the cells of humans and other animals do not contain chloroplasts, cryptic chloroplasts are a potential target for new drugs to treat diseases caused by apicomplexans. However, it remains unclear how widespread cryptic chloroplasts are in these parasites, largely because few apicomplexans have been successfully grown in the laboratory.

To address this question, Janouškovec et al. used an approach called single-cell transcriptomics to study ten different apicomplexans. This provided new data about the genetic make-up of each parasite that the team analysed to find out how they are related to one another. The analysis revealed that, unexpectedly, apicomplexan parasites do not share a close common ancestor and are therefore not a natural grouping from an evolutionary perspective. Instead, their similar physical appearances and lifestyles evolved independently on at least three separate occasions.

Further analysis demonstrated that cryptic chloroplasts are common in apicomplexan parasites, including in lineages where they were not previously known to exist. However, at least three lineages of apicomplexans have independently lost their cryptic chloroplasts.

The findings of Janouškovec et al. shed new light on the importance of chloroplasts in the evolution of life and may help develop new treatments for diseases caused by apicomplexan parasites. Several drugs targeting the cryptic chloroplasts in malaria parasites are currently in clinical trials, and this work suggests that these drugs may also have the potential to be used against other apicomplexan parasites in the future.