Global selection of Plasmodium falciparum virulence antigen expression by host antibodies

Abdi AI, Warimwe GM, Muthui MK, Kivisi CA, Kiragu EW, Fegan GW, Bull PC
Sci Rep. 2016;6

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Parasite proteins called PfEMP1 that are inserted on the surface of infected erythrocytes, play a key role in the severe pathology associated with infection by the Plasmodium falciparum malaria parasite. These proteins mediate binding of infected cells to the endothelial lining of blood vessels as a strategy to avoid clearance by the spleen and are major targets of naturally acquired immunity. PfEMP1 is encoded by a large multi-gene family called var. Mutually-exclusive transcriptional switching between var genes allows parasites to escape host antibodies. This study examined in detail the patterns of expression of var in a well-characterized sample of parasites from Kenyan Children. Instead of observing clear inverse relationships between the expression of broad sub-classes of PfEMP1, we found that expression of different PfEMP1 groups vary relatively independently. Parasite adaptation to host antibodies also appears to involve a general reduction in detectable var gene expression. We suggest that parasites switch both between different PfEMP1 variants and between high and low expression states. Such a strategy could provide a means of avoiding immunological detection and promoting survival under high levels of host immunity.