In a surprise discovery, Melbourne scientists have found that malaria parasites can `talk` to each other.
The researchers explained that this communication network is a social behaviour to ensure the parasite's survival and improve its chances of being transmitted to other humans.
The finding could provide a niche for developing antimalarial drugs and vaccines that prevent or treat the disease by cutting these communication networks.
Professor Alan Cowman, Dr Neta Regev-Rudzki, Dr Danny Wilson and colleagues from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in collaboration with Professor Andrew Hill from the University of Melbourne's Bio21 Institute and Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology showed that malaria parasites are able to send out messages to communicate with other malaria parasites in the body.
Professor Cowman said the researchers were shocked to discover that malaria parasites work in unison to enhance `activation` into sexually mature forms that can be picked up by mosquitoes, which are the carriers of this deadly disease.
Dr Regev-Rudzki said the malaria parasites inside red blood cells communicate by sending packages of DNA to each other during the blood stage of infection.
"We showed that the parasites inside infected red blood cells can send little packets of information from one parasite to another, particularly in response to stress," she said.
The communication network is a social behaviour that has evolved to signal when the parasites should complete their lifecycle and be transmitted back to a mosquito, Dr Regev-Rudzki explained.
"Once they receive this information, they change their fate. The signals tell the parasites to become sexual forms, which are the forms of the malaria parasite that can live and replicate in the mosquito, ensuring the parasites survives and is transmitted to another human," she added.
Professor Cowman said he hopes to see the discovery pave the way to new antimalarial drugs or vaccines for preventing malaria.
The study was published on Thursday in the journal Cell.