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A scientist placing petrie dishes into a machine to study the human malaria parasite

Our Research

The group studies the human malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum.  Research interests are centred around DNA biology, particularly the molecular mechanisms underlying DNA replication and cell cycle control in Plasmodium, which replicates by an unusual method called schizogony.  We are also interested in the roles that G-quadruplex DNA and RNA structures may play in the parasite - for example, in silencing and promoting the recombination of a family of key virulence genes called var geneswhose variant expression is under epigenetic control.  In fact, we have discovered that G-quadruplexes and their helicases have more general roles in genome stability/evolution in the malaria parasite, as well as influencing transcript expression at the RNA level.  Finally, we have a long-standing interest in epigenetics, particularly in a group of NAD+-dependent deacetylase enzymes called sirtuins which regulate subtelomeric chromatin and virulence gene expression.  Plasmodium falciparum sirtuins are linked to particular patterns of var gene expression and to severe malaria in human patients.

Alongside our research, we are actively involved in science communication, including school visits and participation in the annual Cambridge Festival.  Our latest public engagement project can be found here.

Our Current Projects

  • Cell cycle dynamics in Plasmodium parasites
  • DNA replication and DNA damage responses in Plasmodium
  • Unusual nucleic acid structures – G-quadruplexes – in DNA and RNA of Plasmodium
  • RNA structures in Plasmodium
  • Epigenetics and chromatin in Plasmodium

Key Publications

'Replication origin mapping in the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum
Totanes, F.I.G., Gockel, J., Chapman, S.E., Bartfai, R., Boemo, M.A.*, Merrick, C.J.* BioRxiv  https://doi.org/10.1101/2022.07.27.501677 (2022).

‘DNA replication dynamics during erythrocytic schizogony in the malaria parasites Plasmodium falciparum and Plasmodium knowlesi
McDonald, J., Merrick, C.J.  Plos Pathogens,
18(6): e1010595. doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1010595 (2022).

'G-quadruplex RNA motifs influence gene expression in the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum
Dumetz, F.*, Chow, E.Y.*, Harris, L.M., Umar, M.I., Jensen, A., Chung, B., Chan, T.F.*, Merrick, C.J.*, Kwok, C.K*. Nucleic Acids Research  doi.org/10.1093/nar/gkab1095 (2021).

Key reviews:

'Checks and Balances? DNA replication and the cell cycle in Plasmodium.'
Matthews, H., Duffy C.W., Merrick, C.J. Invited review, Parasites & Vectors doi:10.1186/s13071-018-2800-1 (2018).

'G-quadruplexes in pathogens: a common route to virulence control?'
Harris, L.M. and Merrick, C.J. PLoS Pathogens 11(2):e1004562. doi: 10.1371/journal.ppat.1004562 (2015).


 

Dr Catherine J. Merrick

Principal Investigator

 

Dr Holly Craven

Research Associate

Asha Dwivedy

Chief Research
Laboratory Technician

Rachana Ramarao

Chief Research
Laboratory Technician

Monique Johnson

PhD Student

Dr Francis Totanes

Research Associate