Filipa Rijo-Ferreira: Zeroing in on Circadian Rhythms in Parasitic Diseases

Filipa Rijo-Ferreira: Zeroing in on Circadian Rhythms in Parasitic Diseases

"In 2020, malaria deaths increased by 12 percent compared with 2019. The increases in malaria cases are deaths were associated with disruption to services during the COVID-19 pandemic. Malaria burden was heaviest in the WHO African Region, with an estimated 95 percent of cases and 96 percent of deaths; 80 percent of all deaths in this region are among children aged under 5 years."--World Health Organization

Enter Filipa Rijo-Ferreira, a UC Berkeley School of Public Health (BPH) assistant professor who specializes in parasitology and circadian rhythms.

She'll present a UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology seminar at 4:10 p.m., Wednesday, Oct. 19 on "Circadian Rhythms in Parasitic Diseases" in 122 Briggs Hall. Her seminar also will be virtual. The Zoom link is Host is molecular geneticist and physiologist Joanna Chiu, professor and vice chair of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology.

"Malaria's main symptom is the periodic fevers experienced by patients, fevers that ‘come and go' at certain times of the day and are a consequence of synchronized parasite rhythms," Rijo-Ferreira says in her abstract. "In humans, circadian clocks regulate multiple aspects of physiology, including sleep-wake cycles, metabolism, and immune defense. Circadian biology leads to body rhythms experienced by the pathogens that infect humans. In addition to sensing host rhythms, we recently discovered that parasites which cause devastating health burdens such as malaria and sleeping sickness diseases also have their own intrinsic clocks. The clocks of parasites regulate core biological functions from metabolism to the cell cycle, and the discovery of the existence of their clocks serves as an opportunity to access the molecular mechanisms regulating their rhythmic biology."

A native of Lisbon, Portugal, Rijo-Ferreira joined the UC Berkeley Public Health faculty in January 2022. She describes herself as a "scientist passionate about the complex daily host-parasite interactions and how parasites evolved circadian clocks to anticipate environmental cycles." She recently authored "The Malaria Parasite Has an Intrinsic Clock," published in Science magazine.

Trained in infectious diseases and neuroscience, Rijo-Ferreira holds a bachelor's degree in molecular and cellular biology from Nova University of Lisbon, and her master's degree in 2009 in molecular genetics and biomedicine from Imperial College, London. She received her doctorate in 2016 at the University of Porto, Portugal, where she completed her studies in basic and applied biology, molecular parasitology, and neuroscience. Postdoctoral training followed at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas where she won the Brown-Goldstein Award for Excellence in Postdoctoral Research in 2021 for her work investigating the circadian clocks of human parasites. She studied with world-renowned circadian rhythm researcher Joseph Takahashi, professor and chair of the Department of Neuroscience and an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, UT Southwestern Medical Center.

"Our lab is interested in parasitic infections and we study them under the lenses of time of day," Rijo-Ferreira wrote on her lab website. "Our rhythmic world has been a driving force for organisms to evolve a molecular clock to anticipate such daily rhythms. Similarly, our own circadian biology leads to physiological rhythms that parasites experience.We study the single-celled parasites Plasmodium spp. that causes malaria, and Trypanosoma brucei that causes sleeping sickness. We employ technical approaches spanning from next-generation sequencing, to cellular and behavioral assays to investigate the interactions of these parasites with their hosts.Our work seeks to understand how circadian rhythms modulate host-parasite-vector interactions and identify opportunities in their rhythmic biology to treat parasitic infections

In an interview with BPH staff writer Eliza Partika, published in February 2022, she commented: "I am fascinated about our day and night cycles and how organisms evolved to anticipate them. I find it incredible that parasites, such as the ones that cause malaria, show a coordinated rhythmic pattern themselves, which underlies periodic fevers in infected individuals. Our research is aimed at understanding how this phenomenon is regulated molecularly, and how we can disrupt these rhythmic patterns to offset the infection."

"At BPH, we aim to set up a framework where we can explore the relationships between parasites, hosts, and the mosquitoes that serve as the vector of disease transmission, based on the time of day," Rijo-Ferreira related. "We hypothesize that the circadian rhythms of these three organisms need to be aligned in order for the parasite to cause an efficient infection. In fact, when rhythms are misaligned, there is a reduction in parasite levels. Thus, identifying the molecular players from host, parasite, and mosquito is essential to understanding this phenomenon and creating alternative strategies to manage deadly infections like malaria and sleeping sickness."

Rijo-Ferreira said she seeks to "bring to the attention the circadian aspect of infectious diseases and bring awareness of the potential benefits of time of day vaccination and drug treatment."

Emily Meineke, assistant professor of urban landscape entomology, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, coordinates the department's seminars for the 2022-23 academic year. All 11 seminars will take place both person and virtually at 4:10 p.m. on Wednesdays in Room 122 of Briggs Hall except for the Nov. 9th and Dec. 7th seminars, which will be virtual only, she said.  (See list of seminars)

For further information on the seminars or to resolve any technical difficulties with Zoom, contact Meineke at