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Researchers from the BDI have helped to create the world’s largest genetic resource on malaria parasite evolution and drug resistance, released today in Wellcome Open Research. This includes genome variation data on more than 7,000 malaria parasites from 28 endemic countries, and will be a valuable resource for developing new drugs and vaccines, besides surveillance tools for malaria control and elimination.

Malaria is a major global health problem causing an estimated 409,000 deaths in 2019, with 67 per cent of deaths occurring in children under five years of age. This data resource focuses on Plasmodium falciparum, the species of malaria parasite that is responsible for the most common and deadliest form of the disease.

This new open data resource has been produced by the Malaria Genomic Epidemiology Network (MalariaGEN), a data-sharing network of groups around the world who are working together to build high-quality data resources for malaria research and disease control. Founded in 2005, MalariaGEN now has partners in 39 countries, each leading their own studies into different aspects of malaria biology and epidemiology.

This latest publication represents the work of 49 partner studies at 73 locations in Africa, Asia, South America and Oceania, who together contributed 7,113 samples of P. falciparum for genome sequencing. At the Wellcome Sanger Institute, each sample was analysed for over 3 million genetic variants and the data were carefully curated before returning to partners for use in their own research. Each annotated dataset sample includes key features that are relevant to malaria control, such as resistance to six major antimalarial drugs, and whether it carries particular structural changes that cause diagnostic malaria tests to fail.

One of MalariaGEN’s core principles is to provide clear attribution and recognition of all the groups that have contributed to a data resource. In this dataset, each sample is listed against the partner study that it belongs to, with a description of the scientific aims of the study and the local investigators that led the work.

Professor Dominic Kwiatkowski, co-author from the BDI and Wellcome Sanger Institute, said: ‘It has been a huge privilege to collaborate with our MalariaGEN partners around the world to build this data resource. We are proud to see these genomic data being used in publications by our colleagues in malaria-endemic studies and others in the malaria research community. We hope that the new features in this data release will make it accessible to an even wider audience, and our team is now hard at work to produce the next version.’

Besides Professor Kwiatkowski, Dr Victoria Simpson and Kim Johnson at the BDI also played a key role in coordinating this long-term community effort.   

Professor Abdoulaye Djimde, co-author from the University of Science, Techniques and Technologies of Bamako, Mali, said: ‘A quantitative assessment of how malaria parasites respond to public health interventions is key for a successful and sustainable elimination campaign. Over time, this openly available resource will facilitate research into the malaria parasite’s evolutionary processes, which will ultimately inform effective and sustainable malaria control and elimination strategies that will be key in ending this devastating disease.’



MalariaGEN and multiple co-authors. (2021) An open dataset of Plasmodium falciparum genome variation in 7,000 worldwide samples. Wellcome Open Research.