Detecting de novo mutations in viral and bacterial pathogens enables researchers to reconstruct detailed networks of disease transmission and is a key technique in genomic epidemiology. However, these techniques have not yet been applied to the malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum, in which a larger genome, slower generation times, and a complex life cycle make them difficult to implement. Here, we demonstrate the viability of de novo mutation studies in P. falciparum for the first time. Using a combination of sequencing, library preparation, and genotyping methods that have been optimized for accuracy in low-complexity genomic regions, we have detected de novo mutations that distinguish nominally identical parasites from clonal lineages. Despite its slower evolutionary rate compared with bacterial or viral species, de novo mutation can be detected in P. falciparum across timescales of just 1-2?years and evolutionary rates in low-complexity regions of the genome can be up to twice that detected in the rest of the genome. The increased mutation rate allows the identification of separate clade expansions that cannot be found using previous genomic epidemiology approaches and could be a crucial tool for mapping residual transmission patterns in disease elimination campaigns and reintroduction scenarios.
Journal: Molecular biology and evolution