Neutral vs. non-neutral genetic footprints of Plasmodium falciparum multiclonal infections

Frédéric Labbé, Qixin He, Qi Zhan, Kathryn E. Tiedje, Dionne C. Argyropoulos, Mun Hua Tan, Anita Ghansah, Karen P. Day, Mercedes Pascual

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


At a time when effective tools for monitoring malaria control and eradication efforts are crucial, the increasing availability of molecular data motivates their application to epidemiology. The multiplicity of infection (MOI), defined as the number of genetically distinct parasite strains co-infecting a host, is one key epidemiological parameter for evaluating malaria interventions. Estimating MOI remains a challenge for high-transmission settings where individuals typically carry multiple co-occurring infections. Several quantitative approaches have been developed to estimate MOI, including two cost-effective ones relying on molecular data: i) THE REAL McCOIL method is based on putatively neutral single nucleotide polymorphism loci, and ii) the varcoding method is a fingerprinting approach that relies on the diversity and limited repertoire overlap of the var multigene family encoding the major Plasmodium falciparum blood-stage antigen PfEMP1 and is therefore under selection. In this study, we assess the robustness of the MOI estimates generated with these two approaches by simulating P. falciparum malaria dynamics under three transmission conditions using an extension of a previously developed stochastic agent-based model. We demonstrate that these approaches are complementary and best considered across distinct transmission intensities. While varcoding can underestimate MOI, it allows robust estimation, especially under high transmission where repertoire overlap is extremely limited from frequency-dependent selection. In contrast, THE REAL McCOIL often considerably overestimates MOI, but still provides reasonable estimates for low and moderate transmission. Regardless of transmission intensity, results for THE REAL McCOIL indicate that an inaccurate tail at high MOI values is generated, and that at high transmission, an apparently reasonable estimated MOI distribution can arise from some degree of compensation between overestimation and underestimation. As many countries pursue malaria elimination targets, defining the most suitable approach to estimate MOI based on sample size and local transmission intensity is highly recommended for monitoring the impact of intervention programs.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere1010816
JournalPLoS computational biology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2023

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Modeling and Simulation
  • Ecology
  • Molecular Biology
  • Genetics
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience
  • Computational Theory and Mathematics


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