Weeds – that’s the usual focus of Matthias Witschel’s work. As one of BASF’s Principal Scientists, he develops herbicides to help farmers combat these troublesome visitors to their fields. Nothing to do with tropical diseases like malaria you might say. “Actually there is a connection between the two areas that has interested me from very early on” commented Witschel, who has a Ph.D. in chemistry. “The parasites that cause malaria and leishmaniasis are more similar to plants and fungi than to bacteria.” This is because both the malaria pathogen Plasmodium and plant or fungus cells are all ‘eukaryotes’, or cells with a single nucleus. This is what makes them different to bacteria.
In addition, Plasmodium has an internal, plant-derived legacy; it has an organelle (a tiny cellular organ), originally based on an algae cell, that has been incorporated during the evolution of the malaria parasite. This is why herbicide researchers like Matthias Witschel can contribute to the fight against malaria: for example, substances that block the production of proteins and amino acids in weeds, can theoretically do the same thing in Plasmodium parasites. This approach was the focus of a six-month sabbatical that the chemist took in 2009 with the ETH (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) in Zurich. Together with Professor François Diederich, he investigated crop protection compounds to see if they could be used to help treat malaria - and vice-versa. Because the knowledge from malaria research is also valuable for the development of new herbicides.
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