Sir Julian Huxley Lecture 2021

Malaria’s many mates: challenges and opportunities of Haemosporidian systematics

Dr Susan L. Perkins, Martin & Michele Cohen Dean of Science at the City College of New York, United States

October 13th 2021

The Order Haemosporida is a large and very diverse clade of protistan parasites. While the five species of Plasmodium that commonly infect humans are far and away the best studied, there are hundreds of other lineages that utilize a wide variety of both vertebrate and dipteran hosts. These varied taxa offer many opportunities to understand how key traits such as cell invasion, hemoglobin metabolism, and host switches evolved within the group. However, these opportunities are predicated on robust phylogenetic trees for the relationship amongst these species and genera, and these have been extremely challenging to construct. Dr Perkins will share the history of how the field has moved from using just simple characters of host use and life histories to morphometric analysis and eventually to employing molecular data. This progression has been hampered -and at times downright misled- by multiple genetic oddities of these parasites. While our understanding of the deep evolutionary history of this clade is very far from complete, improvements in both the breadth of samples that are studied as well as key advances in obtaining genomic data offer great promise for the path ahead.