Molecules Versus Malaria

Malaria is a disease caused by a microscopic parasite that kills millions of people around the world annually. There are four different species of this parasite that infects humans: Plasmodium vivax, P. falciparum, P. malariae, and P. ovale. The most dangerous of these species is P. falciparum; the others are considered “benign” malarias. Mosquitoes are the bearers of this horrific parasite, and are usually found in swampy climates where stagnant water is prominent.
Quinine has been the antidote for malaria since as long as anyone can remember. It is an alkaloid found in the tree bark of the Cinchona tree. With many cases of malaria, the preventative was in a high demand; naturally chemists like Perkin wanted to synthesize artificial quinine by combining allyltoluidine and oxygen to form quinine and water. This however was unsuccessful, but in the 1930s German chemists successfully synthesized a 4-aminoquinoline derivative known as chloroquine, which contains a chlorine atom. This was considered the best and most reliable of the synthetic malaria treatments. Unfortunately, the strands of malaria have become resistant to chloroquine, reducing its effectiveness. Finally in 2001, Gilbert Stork synthesized the actual quinine molecule.
A molecule called DDT was used as an insecticide to prevent malaria. This molecule interferes with the insect itself that carried the parasite. By 1975 Europe had been declared malaria free due to this “miracle molecule”. DDT has also had a devastating effect on history; it had tilted the ecological balance of nature. The mosquitoes had also become resistant to this molecule rendering it useless.
A naturally occurring molecule that causes immunity to malaria is hemoglobin. However, hemoglobin has its drawbacks. A defect in the hemoglobin, which is a protein that causes red blood cells to look red, causes the painful illness known as sickle-cell anemia. The blood cells of a person with this disease are insoluble, causing the blood cells to distort themselves into sickle shapes. This affects the blood circulation and has very painful side effects. Hemoglobin, as a protein, contains two identical strands of amino acid units. Sickle-cell anemia victims have just a single amino acid unit difference on one of the sets of strands. Since the cells are insoluble and therefore sickle-shaped, the parasite is not able to inhabit it.
These three molecules have played a major role in history in the fight against malaria. Quinine made it possible for western colonization and expansion of many European countries. The DDT molecule eradicated malaria from Europe and North America during the twentieth century. Hemoglobin is what practically spurred on the slave trade, because of its resistance to malaria. These three molecules from either plant, animal, or man-made origin have greatly contributed to the world as we know it.
I believe that these molecules have impacted the world so greatly, that without them it would be completely different. Especially quinine. Quinine has been a cure as well as a preventative for malaria, and without it countless people would have died. Among those could have been a great world leader, or a great scholar; without them, then where would our world be? Magnificent inventions might not have been invented, or technology might not be as advanced. DDT also opened up the door for synthetic insecticides and their consequences. Without it, we would still be struggling with the loss of crops due to pesky insects. With insecticides we can harvest with ease knowing that it will be untouched by creepy-crawlers. I think the molecule hemoglobin has had a drastic effect on history as well. During the days of the slave trade, the Africans who were resistant to malaria were in a greater demand because they could work longer in the tropical climates. They were not sick with malaria. This tiny molecular default cursed many Africans to slavery. I completely agree with the author on these subjects and it is apparent that without these molecules we would not recognize the world we know today.

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One thought on “Molecules Versus Malaria

  1. athomsen56

    Great job defending your opinion and providing the history. I think the world would still be recognizable, but not nearly as enjoyable. A little more chemistry information on the disease would have helped understand the drastic effects these chemicals had on history.

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