Mechanisms of zoonosis of infectious diseases

Supported by a large grant, NTU researchers are using molecular biology to track cross-species spread of pathogens.

In contrast to COVID-19, which appeared in humans only in late 2019, the mosquito-borne disease malaria emerged hundreds of thousands of years ago and has since accompanied humans across the globe, including in the region surrounding Singapore. Though specific species of the malaria­-causing parasite Plasmodium typically infect only certain primate host species, cross-infections between host species­—including to humans—have repeatedly occurred in the past.

Supported by a grant from Singapore’s Ministry of Education over five years, a Singapore research team plans on shedding light on the molecular basis of malaria zoonoses.

“We want to understand the mechanisms by which malaria infections are restricted to certain primate species, and how these mechanistic restrictions are being breached during a zoonotic transition,” says Prof Zbynek Bozdech of NTU’s School of Biological Sciences, who is leading the project “Mechanisms of zoonosis of infectious diseases: The malaria model”.

By simulating malaria adaptation across species in a laboratory model, the researchers aim to detect the biological features that normally maintain transmission barriers between species.

“These molecular factors can serve as tools for diagnosis and monitoring of malaria zoonoses, as well as targets for the development of therapeutics and vaccines,” says Prof Bozdech. “Moreover, we hope to develop general concepts of zoonoses that could be applied across infectious pathogens, including viruses like SARS-CoV-2.”

The article appeared first in NTU’s research & innovation magazine Pushing Frontiers (issue #17, August 2020).

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