Plasmodium polymorphum n. sp. (Haemosporida, Plasmodiidae) was found in the skylark, Alauda arvensis (Passeriformes: Alaudidae), during autumnal migration in southern Italy. This organism is illustrated and described based on the morphology of its blood stages. The most distinctive feature of this malaria parasite is the clear preference of its blood stages (trophozoites, meronts, and gametocytes) for immature red blood cells, including erythroblasts. Based on preference of erythrocytic meronts for immature red blood cells, P. polymorphum is most similar to species of the subgenus Huffia. This parasite can be readily distinguished from all other bird malaria parasites, including Plasmodium (Huffia) spp., due to preferential development and maturation of its gametocytes in immature red blood cells, a unique character for avian Plasmodium spp. In addition, the margins of nuclei in blood stages of P. polymorphum are markedly smooth and distinct; this is also a distinct diagnostic feature of this parasite. Plasmodium polymorphum has been recorded only in the skylark; it is probably a rare parasite, whose host range and geographical distribution remain unclear. Microscopic examination detected a light infection of Plasmodium relictum (lineage GRW11, parasitemia of <0.01%) in the same sample with P. polymorphum; the latter parasite clearly predominated (3.5% parasitemia). However, experienced researchers were unable to detect sequences of mitochondrial cytochrome b gene (cyt b) of P. polymorphum from the microscopically positive sample by using published and newly designed primers for DNA amplification of avian Plasmodium spp. The light parasitemia of P. relictum was easily detectable using several polymerase chain reaction (PCR)–based assays, but P. polymorphum was undetectable in all applied assays. Quantitative PCR also showed the presence of light parasitemia (0.06%) of the lineage GRW11 in this sample. This supports the conclusion that the morphologically distinct parasite observed along with P. relictum and predominant in the sample is genetically dissimilar from the lineage GRW11 based on cyt b sequence. In samples with co-infections, general PCR protocols tend to favor the amplification of the parasite with the higher parasitemia or the amplification with the best matching sequence to the primers. Because the parasitemia of P. polymorphum was >50-fold higher than that of P. relictum and several different primers were tested, we suggest that the failure to amplify P. polymorphum is a more complex problem than why co-infections are commonly overlooked in PCR-based studies. We suggest possible explanations of these results and call for additional research on evolution of mitochondrial genome of hemosporidian parasites.
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