Genes that allow malaria to attack red blood cells discovered

A study conducted by Sanjay A. Desai from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has discovered the genes in malaria parasites that allow them to create feeding pores in red blood cells.

The malaria parasite hides out from the immune system by hiding inside a human red blood cell. While the parasite can fuel its growth by digesting hemoglobin, it must obtain additional nutrients from the bloodstream through tiny pores it creates in the cell membrane, DNA India reports.

The study tested 50,000 chemicals for their ability to block nutrient uptake by cells infected with two genetically distinct lines of Plasmodium falciparum malaria parasites - HB3 and Dd2. One chemical, ISPA-28, stood out because it was 800 times more effective against nutrient channels of Dd2-infected cells than against HB3-infected cells.

Upon further investigation, by crossing the HB3 and Dd2 lines, the scientists discovered that the daughter parasites mostly created channels identical to one or the other parent. This indicated that parasite genes play an important role, DNA India reports. Researchers discovered that on chromosome the, two parasite genes - clag3.1 and clag3.2 - appear to encode the PSAC protein that is used to create the channels. The parasites were found to express either the clag3.1 gene or the clag3.2 gene but not both.

“Malaria parasites use gene switching as a way to protect essential proteins from attack by the immune system,” Desai said, according to DNA India.

The findings were published online in the journal Cell.