mBio 2021;: e0163621 -

Expression Patterns of Plasmodium falciparum Clonally Variant Genes at the Onset of a Blood Infection in Malaria-Naive Humans.

Pickford AK, Michel-Todó L, Dupuy F, Mayor A, Alonso PL, Lavazec C, Cortés A
Clonally variant genes (CVGs) play fundamental roles in the adaptation of Plasmodium falciparum to fluctuating conditions of the human host. However, their expression patterns under the natural conditions of the blood circulation have been characterized in detail for only a few specific gene families. Here, we provide a detailed characterization of the complete P. falciparum transcriptome across the full intraerythrocytic development cycle (IDC) at the onset of a blood infection in malaria-naive human volunteers. We found that the vast majority of transcriptional differences between parasites obtained from the volunteers and the parental parasite line maintained in culture occurred in CVGs. In particular, we observed a major increase in the transcript levels of most genes of the pfmc-2tm and gbp families and of specific genes of other families, such as phist, hyp10, rif, or stevor, in addition to previously reported changes in var and clag3 gene expression. Increased transcript levels of individual pfmc-2tm, rif, and stevor genes involved activation in small subsets of parasites. Large transcriptional differences correlated with changes in the distribution of heterochromatin, confirming their epigenetic nature. Furthermore, the similar expression of several CVGs between parasites collected at different time points along the blood infection suggests that the epigenetic memory for multiple CVG families is lost during transmission stages, resulting in a reset of their transcriptional state. Finally, the CVG expression patterns observed in a volunteer likely infected by a single sporozoite suggest that new epigenetic patterns are established during liver stages. IMPORTANCE The ability of malaria parasites to adapt to changes in the human blood environment, where they produce long-term infection associated with clinical symptoms, is fundamental for their survival. CVGs, regulated at the epigenetic level, play a major role in this adaptive process, as changes in the expression of these genes result in alterations in the antigenic and functional properties of the parasites. However, how these genes are expressed under the natural conditions of the human circulation and how their expression is affected by passage through transmission stages are not well understood. Here, we provide a comprehensive characterization of the expression patterns of these genes at the onset of human blood infections, which reveals major differences with in vitro-cultured parasites. We also show that, during transmission stages, the previous expression patterns for many CVG families are lost, and new patterns are established.