Malaria Challenge – sharing the wonder of malaria biology

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Guest blogger, Julian Rayner, is a member of Faculty at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute near Cambridge UK. Julian’s research investigates the molecular details of human-parasite interactions during the blood stages of malaria, with a particular focus on genomic and proteomic approaches to understanding red blood cell invasion.

Anyone who has worked on malaria parasites will tell you that they are probably the most fascinating eukaryotic organism on the planet. Single cells with an insanely complicated life cycle, Plasmodium parasites cycle between warm vertebrates and cold invertebrates, human liver cells and red blood cells, mosquito midguts and salivary glands, asexual and sexual replication. They can live inside red blood cells, a normally inhospitable home that the parasites make even more toxic by pumping it full of iron byproducts from their metabolism of haemoglobin. The parasites then cleverly avoid their own pollution by making the iron byproducts into crystals that glimmer under the microscope. While causing roaring fevers and too often deadly infections in humans, the parasites switch between a seemingly endless array of surface proteins. This enables them to evade an immune system that is armed and intent on their destruction, but is all too often out of touch, struggling to overcome what it recognised from yesterday’s attack rather than what it faces today. Amazingly malaria parasites not only survive in this environment, they positively excel. This seemingly illogical and impossibly complicated life cycle is actually a fantastically effective way of making a parasitic living, with humans, apes, monkeys, rodents, birds, lizards and snakes all having their own unique complements of Plasmodium species.

This should be the perfect stuff to get secondary school biology students excited, shouldn’t it? Unfortunately, far too often the answer is no. When malaria does appear in secondary school curricula, it is usually as a simple description of the life cycle, which parasitologists, with their love of obtuse names for each and every stage, have done their best to make as difficult as possible to understand and remember. It may seem obvious to malaria researchers that the Plasmodium life cycle can be used as a starting point to explore human genetics or immunology, host-parasite co-evolutionary arms races, as well as the socioeconomic and inequality issues that bedevil malaria control. Sadly, however, this can be difficult for teachers to take advantage of. What could we do to make it easier for them? How could we spark a fascination and sense of wonder about this biological battle and provide an insight into the scientists’ quest to not only understand it but tip the balance in favour of the human under attack?

It was this opportunity to make a difference to how malaria and genetics are taught in the classroom that inspired us to develop Malaria Challenge. We wanted to create a resource that would enthuse the next generation but also make cutting-edge malaria research more accessible to anyone who’s interested.  In essence, Malaria Challenge is a multi-media platform that provides 3D animations, images, videos, facts and interviews with scientists to help explain the Plasmodium life cycle, and the health and economic challenges of malaria. It includes suggestions for detailed classroom exercises that help students understand the biology, but also grapple with some of the current problems of malaria control, from drug resistance to vaccine development. In one example, students have to decide how they would divide a significant pot of money between an array of malaria control and research projects. They have to make the difficult decision of which projects go ahead and which ones don’t. This real-life challenge is one that is faced by funding bodies and governments across the globe.

Stage 5 - Mosquito stages

Malaria Challenge was developed as a partnership between scientists and public engagement and education experts at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. However, it wouldn’t exist without collaborators providing animations and images, scientists willingly donating their time to be interviewed and the enthusiasm of teachers to road test it and give it their seal of approval. Developing it was an enormous amount of fun, but the goal was to produce something that will be widely used in the classroom and beyond. Like all the inspiring activities developed by the Sanger Institute’s Public Engagement Programme, Malaria Challenge is available for free and without strings at www.yourgenome.org. So why not try it? See if we have met some of the lofty goals we set ourselves when we started out. If you think we did a good job, please pass on the URL to your colleagues, whether they are scientists, teachers, students, or interested friends and relatives, wherever they are in the world. Let’s try to spread a little awe and wonder for Plasmodium parasites. Just because you want to eradicate something, doesn’t mean you can’t be a little impressed by it!

Malaria Challenge is available online from www.yourgenome.org. If you would like a copy of the resource and related activities on a CD please send an email with the subject “Malaria Challenge” and your name and address to pubengage@sanger.ac.uk.

The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute is one of the world’s leading genome centres. Through its ability to conduct research at scale, it is able to engage in bold and long-term exploratory projects that are designed to influence and empower medical science globally. Institute research findings, generated through its own research programmes and through its leading role in international consortia, are being used to develop new diagnostics and treatments for human disease.

BioMed Central’s Challenges in Malaria Research: Progress towards elimination conference

If you are interested in malaria research and would like to find out more, BioMed Central, in conjunction with its journals Malaria Journal and Parasites & Vectors, will be hosting its second malaria conference “Challenges in Malaria Research: Progress towards elimination” at the University of Basel, Switzerland from 10 – 12 October 2012. For more information on how to register please visit the conference  website.