Glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase (G6PD) is important in the control of oxidant stress in erythrocytes, the host cells for Plasmodium falciparum. Mutations in this enzyme produce X-linked deficiency states associated with protection against malaria, notably in Africa where the A form of G6PD deficiency is widespread. Some reports have proposed that heterozygous females with mosaic populations of normal and deficient erythrocytes (due to random X chromosome inactivation) have malaria resistance similar to or greater than hemizygous males with populations of uniformly deficient erythrocytes. These proposals are paradoxical, and they are not consistent with currently hypothesized mechanisms of protection.
Methods and Findings
We conducted large case-control studies of the A form of G6PD deficiency in cases of severe or uncomplicated malaria among two ethnic populations of rural Mali, West Africa, where malaria is hyperendemic. Our results indicate that the uniform state of G6PD deficiency in hemizygous male children conferred significant protection against severe, life-threatening malaria, and that it may have likewise protected homozygous female children. No such protection was evident from the mosaic state of G6PD deficiency in heterozygous females. We also found no significant differences in the parasite densities of males and females with differences in G6PD status. Pooled odds ratios from meta-analysis of our data and data from a previous study confirmed highly significant protection against severe malaria in hemizygous males but not in heterozygous females. Among the different forms of severe malaria, protection was principally evident against cerebral malaria, the most frequent form of life-threatening malaria in these studies.
The A form of G6PD deficiency in Africa is under strong natural selection from the preferential protection it provides to hemizygous males against life-threatening malaria. Little or no such protection is present among heterozygous females. Although these conclusions are consistent with data from at least one previous study, they have not heretofore been realized to our knowledge, and they therefore give fresh perspectives on malaria protection by G6PD deficiency as an X-linked trait.