skip to content


Department of Biochemistry


Molecular evolution - from algae to malaria



I am interested in the evolution of the malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum. Malaria infects several hundred million people worldwide each year, and kills one million. About 80% of all deaths caused by malaria are of children under the age of five. Many of the key anti-malarial drugs are now ineffective due to the spread of resistance.

The malaria parasite is a single celled eukaryotic pathogen. It contains a mitochondrion, as well as a remnant chloroplast called the apicoplast. The apicoplast is no longer able to carry out photosynthesis, yet is essential for the parasite's survival. Both the mitochondrion and the apicoplast have many prokaryote-like characteristics, due to their origins as endosymbiotic bacteria, enslaved about 1 1/2 billion years ago. Understanding the function of these essential organelles is key to developing new anti-malarial drugs.

My main research project examines the transcription of the remnant chloroplast. Much is known about the transcription of chloroplast genes in plants and algae, yet very little is known about the transcription in Plasmodium. We have shown that genes are transcribed polycistronically, and that there is significant antisense transcription as well.

I am also interested in other questions in evolution, and am working with several archaeologists. We have a number of projects examining the domestication of the horse, looking at the origins of the thoroughbred breed and are also solving mysteries in thoroughbred racing, such as is Eclipse, the fastest horse ever, really Eclipse? The phylogenetic techniques we use in our work on the malaria parasite are the same as those used to solve these horse problems.

Our lab is funded by the Wellcome Trust under a project grant 'Transcription and post-transcriptional processing in the Plasmodium parasite' to CJ Howe and RER Nisbet.

Lab members: Erin Butterfield, Roshni Thattenghatt (based in Adelaide, Australia), Anjum Naqvi (based in Adelaide, Australia).

Key publications

1 Klinger CM, Nisbet RER, Ouologuem D, Roos D, Dacks, J (2013) Cryptic organelle homology in Apicomplexan parasites: Insights from evolutionary cell biology Organelle homologues in Apicomplexa. Current Opinions in Microbiology 16:1-8

2 Butterfield ER, Howe CJ, Nisbet RER (2013) An analysis of dinoflagellate metabolism using EST data. Protist 164:218-236

3 Barbrook AC, Dorrell R, Burrows J, Plenderleith L, Nisbet RER, Howe CJ (2012) Polyuridylylation and processing of transcripts from multiple gene minicircles in chloroplasts of the dinoflagellate Amphidinium carterae. Plant Molecular Biology 79:347-357

4 Nisbet RER,Fisher R, Nimmo, R.H., Bendall, D.S., Crill, P.M., Gallego-Sala, A.V., Hornibrook, E.R.C.Lopez-Juez, E., Lowry, D., Nisbet, P.B.R., Shuckburgh, E.F., Sriskantharajah, S., Howe CJ, Nisbet E.G. (2009) Emission of methane by transpiration in plants. Proceedings of the Royal Society, Biological Sciences. 276:1459-1468.