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Nature. 1998 Jul 23;394(6691):392-5.

Developmental selection of var gene expression in Plasmodium falciparum.

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Microbiology and Tumor Biology Center, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden.


The protozoan Plasmodium falciparum causes lethal malaria. Adhesion of erythrocytes infected with P. falciparum to vascular endothelium and to uninfected red blood cells (rosetting) may be involved in the pathogenesis of severe malaria. The binding is mediated by the antigenically variant erythrocyte-membrane-protein-1 (PfEMP-1), which is encoded by members of the P. falciparum var gene family. The control of expression and switching of var genes seems to lack resemblance to mechanisms operating in variant gene families of other microbial pathogens. Here we show that multiple, distinct var gene transcripts (about 24 or more) can be detected by reverse transcription and polymerase chain reaction in bulk cultures of the rosetting parasite FCR3S1.2, despite the adhesive homogeneity of the cultures. We also detected several var transcripts in single erythrocytes infected with a ring-stage parasite of FCR3S1.2, and found that different var genes are transcribed simultaneously from several chromosomes in the same cell. In contrast, we detected only one var transcript, FCR3S1.2 var-1, which encodes the rosetting PfEMP-1 protein, in individual rosette-adhesive trophozoite-infected cells, and we found only one PfEMP-1 type at the erythrocyte surface by labelling with 125iodine and immunoprecipitation. We conclude that a single P. falciparum parasite simultaneously transcribes multiple var genes but, through a developmentally regulated process, selects only one PfEMP-1 to reach the surface of the host cell.

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