Glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase (G6PD) deficiency, the most common enzymopathy of humans, affects over 400 million people. The geographical correlation of its distribution with the historical endemicity of malaria suggests that this disorder has risen in frequency through natural selection by malaria. However, attempts to confirm that G6PD deficiency is protective in case-control studies of malaria have yielded conflicting results. Hence, for this X-linked disorder, it is unclear whether both male hemizygotes and female heterozygotes are protected or, as frequently suggested, only females. Furthermore, how much protection may be afforded is unknown. Here we report that, in two large case-control studies of over 2,000 African children, the common African form of G6PD deficiency (G6PD A-) is associated with a 46-58% reduction in risk of severe malaria for both female heterozygotes and male hemizygotes. A mathematical model incorporating the measured selective advantage against malaria suggests that a counterbalancing selective disadvantage, associated with this enzyme deficiency, has retarded its rise in frequency in malaria-endemic regions. Although G6PD deficiency is now regarded as a generally benign disorder, in earlier environmental conditions it could have been significantly disadvantageous.
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