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Plasmodium falciparum invades human red blood cells by a series of interactions between host and parasite surface proteins. Here we analyse whole genome sequence data from worldwide human populations, including 765 new genomes from across sub-Saharan Africa, and identify a diverse array of large copy number variants affecting the host invasion receptor genes GYPA and GYPB . We find that a nearby reported association with severe malaria is explained by a complex structural variant that involves the loss of GYPB and gain of two hybrid genes, each with a GYPB extracellular domain and GYPA intracellular domain. This variant reduces the risk of severe malaria by 40% and has recently risen in frequency in parts of Kenya. We show that the structural variant encodes the Dantu blood group antigen, and therefore a serologically distinct red cell phenotype. These findings demonstrate that structural variation of red blood cell invasion receptors is associated with natural resistance to P. falciparum malaria.

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Working paper

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Malaria Genomic Epidemiology Network