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BMC Genomics. 2018 Dec 10;19(1):894. doi: 10.1186/s12864-018-5257-x.

Schizont transcriptome variation among clinical isolates and laboratory-adapted clones of the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum.

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Pathogen Molecular Biology Department, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, London, UK.
Pathogen Molecular Biology Department, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, London, UK.
Institute of Infection, Immunity and Inflammation, University of Glasgow, Scotland, UK.
Wellcome Sanger Institute, Hinxton, Cambridge, UK.
West African Centre for Cell Biology of Infectious Pathogens, Department of Biochemistry, Cell and Molecular Biology, University of Ghana, Legon, Ghana.
Pathogen Molecular Biology Department, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, London, UK.



Malaria parasites are genetically polymorphic and phenotypically plastic. In studying transcriptome variation among parasites from different infections, it is challenging to overcome potentially confounding technical and biological variation between samples. We investigate variation in the major human parasite Plasmodium falciparum, generating RNA-seq data on multiple independent replicate sample preparations of merozoite-containing intra-erythrocytic schizonts from a panel of clinical isolates and from long-term laboratory-adapted clones, with a goal of robustly identifying differentially expressed genes.


Analysis of biological sample replicates shows that increased numbers improve the true discovery rate of differentially expressed genes, and that six independent replicates of each parasite line allowed identification of most differences that could be detected with larger numbers. For highly expressed genes, focusing on the top quartile at schizont stages, there was more power to detect differences. Comparing cultured clinical isolates and laboratory-adapted clones, genes more highly expressed in the laboratory-adapted clones include those encoding an AP2 transcription factor (PF3D7_0420300), a ubiquitin-binding protein and two putative methyl transferases. In contrast, higher expression in clinical isolates was seen for the merozoite surface protein gene dblmsp2, proposed to be a marker of schizonts forming merozoites committed to sexual differentiation. Variable expression was extremely strongly, but not exclusively, associated with genes known to be targeted by Heterochromatin Protein 1. Clinical isolates show variable expression of several known merozoite invasion ligands, as well as other genes for which new RT-qPCR assays validate the quantitation and allow characterisation in samples with more limited material. Expression levels of these genes vary among schizont preparations of different clinical isolates in the first ex vivo cycle in patient erythrocytes, but mean levels are similar to those in continuously cultured clinical isolates.


Analysis of multiple biological sample replicates greatly improves identification of genes variably expressed between different cultured parasite lines. Clinical isolates recently established in culture show differences from long-term adapted clones in transcript levels of particular genes, and are suitable for analyses requiring biological replicates to understand parasite phenotypes and variable expression likely to be relevant in nature.


Biological replicates; Cell invasion; Clinical samples; Culture adaptation; Eukaryotic microbial genomics; Immunity; RNA-seq; Transcriptomic methods

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