Evolutionary analysis of genes of two pathways involved in placental malaria infection
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Placental malaria is a special form of malaria that causes up to 200,000 maternal and infant deaths every year. Previous studies show that two receptor molecules, hyaluronic acid and chondroitin sulphate A, are mediating the adhesion of parasite-infected erythrocytes in the placenta of patients, which is believed to be a key step in the pathogenesis of the disease. In this study, we aimed at identifying sites of malaria-induced adaptation by scanning for signatures of natural selection in 24 genes in the complete biosynthesis pathway of these two receptor molecules. We analyzed a total of 24 Mb of publicly available polymorphism data from the International HapMap project for three human populations with European, Asian and African ancestry, with the African population from a region of presently and historically high malaria prevalence. Using the methods based on allele frequency distributions, genetic differentiation between populations, and on long-range haplotype structure, we found only limited evidence for malaria-induced genetic adaptation in this set of genes in the African population; however, we identified one candidate gene with clear evidence of selection in the Asian population. Although historical exposure to malaria in this population cannot be ruled out, we speculate that it might be caused by other pathogens, as there is growing evidence that these molecules are important receptors in a variety of host-pathogen interactions. We propose to use the present methods in a systematic way to help identify candidate regions under positive selection as a consequence of malaria.