Signatures of competition and strain structure within the major blood-stage antigen of Plasmodium falciparum in a local community in Ghana

Mary M. Rorick, Yael Artzy-Randrup, Shazia Ruybal-Pesántez, Kathryn E. Tiedje, Thomas S. Rask, Abraham Oduro, Anita Ghansah, Kwadwo Koram, Karen P. Day, Mercedes Pascual

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The concept of niche partitioning has received considerable theoretical attention at the interface of ecology and evolution of infectious diseases. Strain theory postulates that pathogen populations can be structured into distinct nonoverlapping strains by frequency-dependent selection in response to intraspecific competition for host immune space. The malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum presents an opportunity to investigate this phenomenon in nature, under conditions of high recombination rate and extensive antigenic diversity. The parasite's major blood-stage antigen, PfEMP1, is encoded by the hyperdiverse var genes. With a dataset that includes thousands of var DBLα sequence types sampled from asymptomatic cases within an area of high endemicity in Ghana, we address how var diversity is distributed within isolates and compare this to the distribution of microsatellite allelic diversity within isolates to test whether antigenic and neutral regions of the genome are structured differently. With respect to var DBLα sequence types, we find that on average isolates exhibit significantly lower overlap than expected randomly, but that there also exists frequent pairs of isolates that are highly related. Furthermore, the linkage network of var DBLα sequence types reveals a pattern of nonrandom modularity unique to these antigenic genes, and we find that modules of highly linked DBLα types are not explainable by neutral forces related to var recombination constraints, microsatellite diversity, sampling location, host age, or multiplicity of infection. These findings of reduced overlap and modularity among the var antigenic genes are consistent with a role for immune selection as proposed by strain theory. Identifying the evolutionary and ecological dynamics that are responsible for the nonrandom structure in P. falciparum antigenic diversity is important for designing effective intervention in endemic areas.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3574-3588
Number of pages15
JournalEcology and Evolution
Issue number7
StatePublished - Apr 2018


  • PfEMP1
  • antigenic diversity
  • modularity
  • niche partitioning
  • strain theory
  • var gene

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation


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