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Eye on Potatoes: Malaria, late blight share surprising trait


March 31, 2008
By Fruit & Vegetable

Topics

Two wildly different pathogens –
one that infects vegetables, the other infecting humans – essentially
use the same protein code to get their disease-causing proteins into
the cells of their respective hosts.

Two wildly different pathogens – one that infects vegetables, the other infecting humans – essentially use the same protein code to get their disease-causing proteins into the cells of their respective hosts.

That’s what researchers from Ohio State and Northwestern universities recently discovered. The scientists were surprised to learn the pathogen that causes malaria in humans and the microbe that causes late blight use identical protein signals to start an infection.

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There’s no chance the potato pathogen will jump to humans, nor is it likely the malaria parasite will start infecting plants.

However, it’s feasible to think that one day, researchers could develop a drug with a dual purpose – one that would stop both Plasmodium falciparum, which causes malaria, and Phytophthora infestans, the microbe that triggers late blight in vegetables, including potatoes and tomatoes.

The researchers swapped a small sequence of proteins, called the leader sequence, in P. falciparum with the leader sequence of P. infestans. A leader sequence is a group of about 20 to 30 amino acids on a protein secreted by the parasite. This sequence contains instructions on how to enter, and therefore start infecting, a plant or animal cell.

In laboratory experiments, the researchers infected human red blood cells with the modified malarial pathogen.

Results showed that malaria proteins could just as effectively enter and infect a cell when it contained the P. infestans leader sequence instead of its own.