Our past includes Nobel Prize winners and groundbreaking discoveries in malaria and sleeping sickness.
Ashworth Laboratories first opened in the late 1920s, to house the University's Department of Zoology as well as the Natural History Collections.
Research excellence has continued unabated through the years: Ashworth saw groundbreaking infectious disease research emerge alongside the development of Edinburgh's historical strength in population biology and quantitative genetics. Researchers in infectious disease continue to benefit from close association with evolutionary and quantitative biologists within the School.
A few infectious disease researchers who began their careers here deserve mention. For example, the 2001 Nobel Laureate Sir Paul Nurse was a post-doc here, in the cell biology and genetics laboratory of Murdoch Mitchison.
In addition, Sir David Bruce, who is credited with discovering the life cycle of trypanosomes that cause sleeping sickness, or Nagana, embarked upon his zoology training at the University. Trypanosoma brucei was later named after him.
Malaria research in Edinburgh
Malaria and Edinburgh have a long association. Most notably, it was here that Patrick Manson announced Ronald Ross’s discovery of the malaria parasite’s mosquito cycle at a meeting of the British Medical Association in July 1898. Ross’s 1902 Nobel Prize awarded for this discovery is in the Museum of Scotland on Chambers Street.
Geoffrey Beale started the School’s present era of malaria research in 1966. His studies on the genetics of the free-living ciliate Paramecium Aurelia led him to work on a more important protozoan, following an intervention from P.C.C Garnham, then Professor of Medical Parasitology and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
As a result, Beale obtained funding from the Medical Research Council to start work on the genetics of malaria parasites. At this time David Walliker joined the group as a post-doctoral scientist, together with Richard Carter who was commencing his PhD studies.
The Edinburgh team were the first to demonstrate genetic recombination in malaria parasites using defined biochemical traits - electrophoretic enzyme variants and drug resistance markers. They carried out crosses between two parasite strains infecting rodents, initially with Plasmodium yoelii, and subsequently with P. chabaudi.
Another discovery of fundamental importance made here was that the life-cycle is haploid in its mammalian host, with meiosis and consequent recombination following shortly after the formation of the only diploid stage of the parasite in its mosquito vector.
The work expanded to include studies on the natural genetic diversity of rodent malaria species, which include P. berghei and P. vinckei as well as P. yoelii and P. chabaudi.
As a result, we obtained a large number of wild-caught infected thicket-rats from Africa as well as numerous deep-frozen strains from other research groups. This has grown into the largest collection of these strains currently available, and we often send samples to laboratories worldwide.
Our malaria research interests have diversified considerably since the 1960s. Trager and Jensen’s 1976 development of an in vitro culture system for the human malaria parasite P. falciparum signalled a major change in the type of research that was now possible with this species.
As with the rodent malaria species, we have built up a large number of deep-frozen isolates of P. falciparum. One clone, 3D7, was chosen for the P. falciparum genome sequencing project carried out in other laboratories in the UK and the USA, completed in 2002.
Research work on rodent parasites and P. falciparum continues in parallel. While genetics remains a core discipline, our work now extends over molecular and cell biology, immunology, evolutionary biology and epidemiology.