60 species of Anopheles mosquitos can transmit malaria. There are four forms of Human Malaria each caused by a different species of parasite, the most dangerous being Plasmodium Falciparum.
During the incubation period of malaria, the protozoa grow within cells in the liver then invade the red blood cells. The parasite starts to consume the haemoglobin and enlarges until it fills the cell when it breaks out and invades another cell.
The parasite hides from the immune system by depositing one of 60 different proteins on the surface of infected red blood cells. This is only the start of the changes made to the cell by the parasite. The red blood cell has no nucleus and no transport proteins to move nutrients and other chemicals around so the parasite has to do the work. Another parasite protein transfers to the cell surface helping it stick to parts of the body which stops it circulating and being destroyed by the spleen.
In one of Nature's twists, the iron in the blood cell is toxic to the parasite so it has to convert the haem into a pigment, haemozoin which it stores in its stomach. If anti-malaria drugs could disrupt this process, the parasite would die. Monash researchers are using synchrotron light to see the chemical changes that convert haem to haemozoin inside the parasite.
At the Eureka Awards for 2008, Associate Professor Brian Cooke from Microbiology received a Science to Art Award, which recognises his studies of fatal malaria cases and a resulting image of the surface of a human red blood cell infected with a malaria parasite.
Associate Professor Cooke said, "I hope that my small contribution may one day make a big difference to millions of people burdened by unnecessary illness. Simple and effective communication of our research is paramount, particularly in the present era of new, sophisticated technologies and merging disciplines. Science through art and graphic visualisation is a tantalising way to capture all imaginations."
School of Physics scientific photographer Steven Morton, who came equal 2nd in last year's Eureka Awards, produced this image, Cellular Renovations. He manipulated and pseudo-coloured the image after the National University of Singapore provided the raw imaging data gained by atomic force microscopy.
The knob-like bumps are part of the renovations that the malaria parasite makes to the red blood cell after it moves in during infection. The NHMRC-funded work at Monash University aims to understand the molecular nature of these changes in red blood cells that make malaria so severe.