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PLoS One. 2008 Apr 23;3(4):e1982. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0001982.

Default Pathway of var2csa switching and translational repression in Plasmodium falciparum.

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Department of Microbiology, Tumor and Cell Biology, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden.


Antigenic variation is a subtle process of fundamental importance to the survival of a microbial pathogen. In Plasmodium falciparum malaria, PfEMP1 is the major variable antigen and adhesin expressed at the surface of the infected erythrocyte, which is encoded for by members of a family of 60 var-genes. Peri-nuclear repositioning and epigenetic mechanisms control their mono-allelic expression. The switching of PfEMP1 depends in part on variable transition rates and short-lived immune responses to shared minor epitopes. Here we show var-genes to switch to a common gene that is highly transcribed, but sparsely translated into PfEMP1 and not expressed at the erythrocyte surface. Highly clonal and adhesive P. falciparum, which expressed distinct var-genes and the corresponding PfEMP1s at onset, were propagated without enrichment or panning. The parasites successively and spontaneously switched to transcribe a shared var-gene (var2csa) matched by the loss of PfEMP1 surface expression and host cell-binding. The var2csa gene repositioned in the peri-nuclear area upon activation, away from the telomeric clusters and heterochromatin to transcribe spliced, full-length RNA. Despite abundant transcripts, the level of intracellular PfEMP1 was low suggesting post-transcriptional mechanisms to partake in protein expression. In vivo, off-switching and translational repression may constitute one pathway, among others, coordinating PfEMP1 expression.

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