Human genetics and malaria resistance

Kariuki SN, Williams TN
Hum Genet. 2020;139

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Malaria has been the pre-eminent cause of early mortality in many parts of the world throughout much of the last five thousand years and, as a result, it is the strongest force for selective pressure on the human genome yet described. Around one third of the variability in the risk of severe and complicated malaria is now explained by additive host genetic effects. Many individual variants have been identified that are associated with malaria protection, but the most important all relate to the structure or function of red blood cells. They include the classical polymorphisms that cause sickle cell trait, alpha-thalassaemia, G6PD deficiency, and the major red cell blood group variants. More recently however, with improving technology and experimental design, others have been identified that include the Dantu blood group variant, polymorphisms in the red cell membrane protein ATP2B4, and several variants related to the immune response. Characterising how these genes confer their effects could eventually inform novel therapeutic approaches to combat malaria. Nevertheless, all together, only a small proportion of the heritable component of malaria resistance can be explained by the variants described so far, underscoring its complex genetic architecture and the need for continued research.