The Plasmodium Species


The micrograph shows round red blood cells, each about 8 microns across, infected with ring-shaped P falciparum.
Malaria parasite. Red blood cells are shown to be infected with P. falciparum, the causative agent of malaria. In this light microscopic image taken using a 100× oil immersion lens, the ring-shaped P. falciparum stains purple. (credit: modification of work by Michael Zahniser; scale-bar data from Matt Russell)

OpenStax Biology 2e

In 2015 WHO reported over 200 million cases of malaria, mostly in Africa, South America, and southern Asia. However, it is not well known that malaria was also a prevalent and debilitating disease of the North Central region of the United States, particularly Michigan, with its thousands of lakes and numerous swamps. Prior to the civil war, and the drainage of many swamps, virtually everyone who immigrated to Michigan picked up malaria (ague as it was called in the late 1800s), and the pale, sallow, bloated faces of that period were the rule. The only healthy faces were worn by those immigrants who had just arrived. In fact, there were more deaths due to malaria in Michigan than those from the Civil War.

We now know that malaria is caused by several species of the apicomplexan protist genus Plasmodium. Members of Plasmodium must sequentially require both a mosquito and a vertebrate to complete their life cycle. In vertebrates, the parasite develops in liver cells (the exoerythrocytic stage) and goes on to infect red blood cells (the erythrocytic stage), bursting from and destroying the blood cells with each asexual replication cycle. Of the four Plasmodium species known to infect humans, P. falciparum accounts for 50 percent of all malaria cases and is the primary (and deadliest) cause of disease-related fatalities in tropical regions of the world. In 2015, it was estimated that malaria caused over 400,000 deaths, mostly in African children. During the course of malaria, P. falciparum can infect and destroy more than one-half of a human’s circulating blood cells, leading to severe anemia. In response to waste products released as the parasites burst from infected blood cells, the host immune system mounts a massive inflammatory response with episodes of delirium-inducing fever (paroxysms) as parasites lyse red blood cells, spilling parasite waste into the bloodstream. P. falciparum is transmitted to humans by the African mosquito, Anopheles gambiae. Techniques to kill, sterilize, or avoid exposure to this highly aggressive mosquito species are crucial to malaria control. Ironically, a type of genetic control has arisen in parts of the world where malaria is endemic. Possession of one copy of the HbS beta globin allele results in malaria resistance. Unfortunately, this allele also has an unfortunate second effect; when homozygous it causes sickle cell disease.


Clark, M., Douglas, M., Choi, J. Biology 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at:

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