Plasmodium falciparum adapts its investment into replication versus transmission according to the host environment

Abdi AI, Achcar F, Sollelis L, Silva-Filho JL, Mwikali K, Muthui M, Mwangi S, Kimingi HW, Orindi B, Andisi C, Alkema M, Chandrasekar A, Bull PC, Bejon P, Modrzynska K, Bousema T, Marti M
Elife. 2023;12

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The malaria parasite life cycle includes asexual replication in human blood, with a proportion of parasites differentiating to gametocytes required for transmission to mosquitoes. Commitment to differentiate into gametocytes, which is marked by activation of the parasite transcription factor ap2-g, is known to be influenced by host factors but a comprehensive model remains uncertain. Here we analyze data from 828 children in Kilifi, Kenya with severe, uncomplicated, and asymptomatic malaria infection over 18 years of falling malaria transmission. We examine markers of host immunity and metabolism, and markers of parasite growth and transmission investment. We find that inflammatory responses associated with reduced plasma lysophosphatidylcholine levels are associated with markers of increased investment in parasite sexual reproduction (i.e., transmission investment) and reduced growth (i.e., asexual replication). This association becomes stronger with falling transmission and suggests that parasites can rapidly respond to the within-host environment, which in turn is subject to changing transmission.