We describe a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) assay that detects avian malarial infection across divergent host species and parasite lineages representing both Plasmodium spp. and Haemoproteus spp. The assay is based on nucleotide primers designed to amplify a 286-bp fragment of ribosomal RNA (rRNA) coding sequence within the 6-kb mitochondrial DNA malaria genome. The rRNA malarial assay outperformed other published PCR diagnostic methods for detecting avian infections. Our data demonstrate that the assay is sensitive to as few as 10−5 infected erythrocytes in peripheral blood. Results of avian population surveys conducted with the rRNA assay suggest that prevalences of malarial infection are higher than previously documented, and that studies based on microscopic examination of blood smears may substantially underestimate the extent of parasitism by these apicomplexans. Nonetheless, because these and other published primers miss small numbers of infections detected by other methods, including inspection of smears, no assay now available for avian malaria is universally reliable.
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