Investigating the evolution of apoptosis in malaria parasites: the importance of ecology

Apoptosis is a precisely regulated process of cell death which occurs widely in multicellular organisms and is essential for normal development and immune defences. In recent years, interest has grown in the occurrence of apoptosis in unicellular organisms.

In particular, as apoptosis has been reported in a wide range of species, including protozoan malaria parasites and trypanosomes, it may provide a novel target for intervention. However, it is important to understand when and why parasites employ an apoptosis strategy before the likely long- and short-term success of such an intervention can be evaluated.

The occurrence of apoptosis in unicellular parasites provides a challenge for evolutionary theory to explain as organisms are expected to have evolved to maximise their own proliferation, not death. One possible explanation is that protozoan parasites undergo apoptosis in order to gain a group benefit from controlling their density as this prevents premature vector mortality.

However, experimental manipulations to examine the ultimate causes behind apoptosis in parasites are lacking. In this review, we focus on malaria parasites to outline how an evolutionary framework can help make predictions about the ecological circumstances under which apoptosis could evolve.

We then highlight the ecological considerations that should be taken into account when designing evolutionary experiments involving markers of cell death, and we call for collaboration between researchers in different fields to identify and develop appropriate markers in reference to parasite ecology and to resolve debates on terminology.

Published on: 2010-11-16

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