Dr Silvia Portugal, Head of a DZIF junior research group, has received 1.5 million euros’ funding from the European Research Council. At the Heidelberg University Hospital, together with an international team of researchers, the scientist will research how the malaria pathogen overcomes the dry season.
Anopheles mosquitoes cannot exist without water—and new infections with the malaria parasite in humans cannot occur without mosquitoes. How does the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum survive dry periods in its endemic regions with almost no water surfaces for the mosquito larvae to develop? Dr Silvia Portugal, Head of a DZIF junior research group at the Department of Parasitology at the Heidelberg University Hospital will be investigating this question over the next five years. Her research work is being supported with a starting grant of 1.5 million Euros from the European Research Council (ERC). The highly remunerated ERC Starting Grant is research funding from the European Union, designed to support top researchers advance basic research and visionary projects.
In tropical countries, the rainy season is also a time for malaria outbreaks as the Anopheles mosquito, the malaria pathogen carrier, reproduces exponentially during this time. "The dry season, in which only a few mosquitoes exist, is challenging for Plasmodium falciparum the malaria parasite," summarises Dr Silvia Portugal. An established fact is that only infected people, not ill people, form an important reservoir for parasite transmission because here the parasite changes in such a way that malaria infection does not cause any symptoms. The pathogen’s successful game of hide-and-seek seems to have genetic reasons: “Our preliminary data suggest that P. falciparum changes its transcription, i.e. its genetic ‘reading’, during the dry season and the host’s immune system hardly reacts to the pathogen at all. This implies that the parasite is very well adapted to seasons in which no mosquitoes are available for transmission,” says Dr Silvia Portugal. Over the next five years, the parasitologist would like to elucidate the parasite’s mechanisms for becoming unrecognisable to the immune system as long as no mosquitoes are around—and how transmission is reinitiated in the next rainy season.
Silvia Portugal, born 1980 in Póvoa de Varzim in Portugal, studied biology at the University of Porto, did her PhD at the University of Lisbon and subsequently conducted research at the University of São Paulo in Brazil, followed by five years at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, USA. In 2016, she became head of a junior research group at the Heidelberg Centre of Infectious Diseases, Department of Parasitology funded by the German Infection Research Center (DZIF). Her research work has received several distinctions including an EMBO Fellowship in 2012, a Burroughs Wellcome Fund grant in 2013 and the Fellows Award for Research Excellence from the USA’s National Institutes of Health (NIH) from 2014 to 2015.