skip to content


The University has moved into its "red" phase in response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. All University staff, except those needed for business-critical activity, are now working remotely. Please contact us by email until further notice.

Department of Biochemistry


Molecular evolution - from algae to malaria.


The Nisbet Group is 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, and is a member of the apicomplexa. Other apicomplexa include Toxoplasma, and Theileria, a cattle and African buffalo parasite. Apicomplexan parasites 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 1.5 billion years ago. Understanding the function of these essential organelles is key to developing new anti-malarial drugs.

Closely related to the apicomplexa are the dinoflagellates, photosynthetic algae which contain a functional chloroplast. Some dinoflagellate species form symbiosis with coral. The breakdown of this symbiosis causes coral bleaching. The symbiosis is extremely temperature sensitive, and there is increasing coral bleaching with rising sea temperatures. We examine the dinoflagellate chloroplast, and have recently managed to create genetically modified dinoflagellates for the first time. These algae will help us to understand why coral bleaching occurs.


Research objectives

  • How is the apicoplast genome transcribed, and how are transcripts processed?

  • How is the dinoflagellate chloroplast transcribed?

  • Can we measure how dinoflagellate chloroplast transcription changes with stress?


Key publications

Hicks JL, Lassadi I, Carpenter EF, Eno M, Vardakis A, Waller RF, Howe CJ, Nisbet RER (2019). An essential pentatricopeptide repeat protein in the apicomplexan remnant chloroplast. Cell Microbiol., 21(12):e13108. doi: 10.1111/cmi.13108

Nimmo IC, Barbrook AC, Lassadi I, Chen JE, Geisler K, Smith AG, Aranda M, Purton S, Waller RF, Nisbet RER, Howe CJ (2019). Genetic transformation of the dinoflagellate chloroplast. eLife, 8:e45292. doi: 10.7554/eLife.45292

Barbrook AC, Howe C, Nisbet E (2019). Breaking up is hard to do: the complexity of the dinoflagellate chloroplast genome. Perspectives in Phycology, 6(1-2):31-37. doi: 10.1127/pip/2018/0084

Nisbet RER, Kurniawan DP, Bowers HD, Howe CJ (2016). Transcripts in the Plasmodium apicoplast undergo cleavage at tRNAs and editing, and include antisense sequences. Protist, 167(4):377-388. doi: 10.1016/j.protis.2016.06.003

Contact details

Research Group Leader  Ellen Nisbet


Location  Hopkins Building


The Nisbet Group is not currently accepting enquiries from prospective students or staff.