Research could find malaria cure

Published On:
Monday, February 23, 2009
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Gene research in humans and primates by two ASU professors could lead to a better understanding of diseases.

Anne Stone, an associate professor in the anthropology department, has collaborated with Brian Verrelli, an assistant professor in the School of Life Sciences, on the project.

“I’m interested in adaptation — ways we can look at how [chimpanzees] have adapted and we haven’t,” Verrelli said.

Although Verrelli is mainly interested in the adaptation aspect of the research, the main goal of the project is broader.

“[The focus of the research] is basically to look at patterns of natural selection in our closest relatives and how it compares to what we see in humans,” Stone said.

Natural selection patterns are important because “natural selection is the process of adaptation, so the patterns that we see help us understand how we have adapted to our environment and what selective pressures we have faced during our evolutionary history,” Stone said.

The collaboration started when Stone and Verrelli were thinking about questions in human and primate genetics, Stone said.

Stone’s previous research includes looking at genes involved with diet, such as the gene that encodes one of the taste receptors and the copy number (the number of genes on each chromosome) of the salivary amylase gene.

“One of the areas in which we see adaptation is genes involved in the metabolism, and basically diet,” Stone said.

Variation is seen in humans and chimpanzees due to the ability to taste the compound phenylthiocarbamide, which may be an adaptation to avoid certain plants, Stone said.

The non-taster phenotype (which suggests the physical and behavioral characteristics of the organism) arose independently in chimps and humans because of “completely different mutations that knock out the receptor,” Stone said.

For humans and chimpanzees, who do have the taste receptor, the chemical gives a bitter taste.

“There may be some sort of advantage in having tasters or non-tasters,” Stone said.

Stone is using her prior research knowledge to delve more into disease research now, since genes are involved in both diet and diseases for primates and humans.

“[The research] adds up to helping us understand diseases better and fight them,” Stone said.

Eventually, the research might lead to a drug to fight malaria, which is one of the main diseases the research will focus on.

Erica Tassone, a biology graduate student, is currently working on malaria research with Stone and Vellerri for her dissertation project, which she started in fall 2007.

“I look at genes associated with malaria resistance in chimpanzees and see how they’re the same or different from those genes in humans,” Tassone said.

Although Tassone said she is also interested in doing research on how genes act in a cell, her main concentration now is the disease research.

“[I hope] to get a better understanding of how humans and chimpanzees have evolved and developed resistance to diseases,” Tassone said.

Reach the reporter at reweaver@asu.edu.