Scientists said Sunday they had unravelled the genome of the hookworm, paving the way for better remedies against the disease-causing parasite that infects about 700 million people.
An international team of researchers identified genes that help the hookworm invade its host, evade the body's immune defences, and feed undisturbed on human blood for up to a decade.
"Our findings provide information on molecules that are essential for the worm's survival, therefore making them potential candidates for development of therapeutics to combat hookworm infections," study co-author Makedonka Mitreva of the Washington University School of Medicine told AFP.
The hookworm Necator americanus is the predominant soil-dwelling human parasite.
Adult worms feed on blood in the small intestine, causing iron deficiency, malnutrition, stunting in children, and pregnancy complications.
They infect mainly people in disadvantaged communities in tropical and subtropical regions.
The life cycle starts with the hatching of eggs in the stool of infected people, which hatch as larvae in soil, and reinfect humans by skin penetration, according to the study published in Nature Genetics.
Adult worms of about one centimetre (0.4 inches) long can drink 30 microlitres (a millionth of a litre) of blood per day, and survive in its human host for 10 years.
A female worm can lay up to 10,000 eggs per day.
"New methods to control hookworm disease are urgently needed," said the authors.
"We expect that the presented information will accelerate the development of vaccines and diagnostics," added Mitreva.