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Mol Microbiol. 2007 Dec;66(6):1296-305. Epub 2007 Nov 19.

5' flanking region of var genes nucleate histone modification patterns linked to phenotypic inheritance of virulence traits in malaria parasites.

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Institut Pasteur-CNRS, 25 rue du Dr Roux, 75724 Paris, France.


In the human malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum antigenic variation facilitates long-term chronic infection of the host. This is achieved by sequential expression of a single member of the 60-member var family. Here we show that the 5' flanking region nucleates epigenetic events strongly linked to the maintenance of mono-allelic var gene expression pattern during parasite proliferation. Tri- and dimethylation of histone H3 lysine 4 peak in the 5' upstream region of transcribed var and during the poised state (non-transcribed phase of var genes during the 48 h asexual life cycle), 'bookmarking' this member for re-activation at the onset of the next cycle. Histone H3 lysine 9 trimethylation acts as an antagonist to lysine 4 methylation to establish stably silent var gene states along the 5' flanking and coding region. Furthermore, we show that competition exists between H3K9 methylation and H3K9 acetylation in the 5' flanking region and that these marks contribute epigenetically to repressing or activating var gene expression. Our work points to a pivotal role of the histone methyl mark writing and reading machinery in the phenotypic inheritance of virulence traits in the malaria parasite.

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