Following the bite of an infective mosquito, malaria parasites first invade the liver where they develop and replicate for a number of days before being released into the bloodstream where they invade red blood cells and cause disease. The biology of the liver stages of malaria parasites is relatively poorly understood due to the inaccessibility of the parasites to sampling during this phase of their life cycle. Here we report the detection in blood and faecal samples of malaria parasite DNA throughout their development in the livers of mice and before the parasites begin their growth in the blood circulation. It is shown that parasite DNA derived from pre-erythrocytic stage parasites reaches the faeces via the bile. We then show that different primate malaria species can be detected by PCR in blood and faecal samples from naturally infected captive macaque monkeys. These results demonstrate that pre-erythrocytic parasites can be detected and quantified in experimentally infected animals. Furthermore, these results have important implications for both molecular epidemiology and phylogenetics of malaria parasites. In the former case, individuals who are malaria parasite negative by microscopy, but PCR positive for parasite DNA in their blood, are considered to be "sub-microscopic" blood stage parasite carriers. We now propose that PCR positivity is not necessarily an indicator of the presence of blood stage parasites, as the DNA could derive from pre-erythrocytic parasites. Similarly, in the case of molecular phylogenetics based on DNA sequences alone, we argue that DNA amplified from blood or faeces does not necessarily come from a parasite species that infects the red blood cells of that particular host.
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