June 1, 2021  |  

Complete telomere-to-telomere de novo assembly of the Plasmodium falciparum genome using long-read sequencing

Sequence-based estimation of genetic diversity of Plasmodium falciparum, the most lethal malarial parasite, has proved challenging due to a lack of a complete genomic assembly. The skewed AT-richness (~80.6% (A+T)) of its genome and the lack of technology to assemble highly polymorphic sub-telomeric regions that contain clonally variant, multigene virulence families (i.e. var and rifin) have confounded attempts using short-read NGS technologies. Using single molecule, real-time (SMRT) sequencing, we successfully compiled all 14 nuclear chromosomes of the P. falciparum genome from telomere-to-telomere in single contigs. Specifically, amplification-free sequencing generated reads of average length 12 kb, with =50% of the reads between 15.5 and 50 kb in length. A hierarchical genome assembly process (HGAP), was used to assemble the P. falciparum genome de novo. This assembly accurately resolved centromeres (~90-99% (A+T)) and sub-telomeric regions, and identified large insertions and duplications in the genome that added extra genes to the var and rifin virulence families, along with smaller structural variants such as homopolymer tract expansions. These regions can be used as markers for genetic diversity during comparative genome analyses. Moreover, identifying the polymorphic and repetitive sub-telomeric sequences of parasite populations from endemic areas might inform the link between structural variation and phenotypes such as virulence, drug resistance and disease transmission.


April 21, 2020  |  

Comprehensive evaluation of non-hybrid genome assembly tools for third-generation PacBio long-read sequence data.

Long reads obtained from third-generation sequencing platforms can help overcome the long-standing challenge of the de novo assembly of sequences for the genomic analysis of non-model eukaryotic organisms. Numerous long-read-aided de novo assemblies have been published recently, which exhibited superior quality of the assembled genomes in comparison with those achieved using earlier second-generation sequencing technologies. Evaluating assemblies is important in guiding the appropriate choice for specific research needs. In this study, we evaluated 10 long-read assemblers using a variety of metrics on Pacific Biosciences (PacBio) data sets from different taxonomic categories with considerable differences in genome size. The results allowed us to narrow down the list to a few assemblers that can be effectively applied to eukaryotic assembly projects. Moreover, we highlight how best to use limited genomic resources for effectively evaluating the genome assemblies of non-model organisms. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press.


April 21, 2020  |  

Progression of the canonical reference malaria parasite genome from 2002-2019.

Here we describe the ways in which the sequence and annotation of the Plasmodium falciparum reference genome has changed since its publication in 2002. As the malaria species responsible for the most deaths worldwide, the richness of annotation and accuracy of the sequence are important resources for the P. falciparum research community as well as the basis for interpreting the genomes of subsequently sequenced species. At the time of publication in 2002 over 60% of predicted genes had unknown functions. As of March 2019, this number has been significantly decreased to 33%. The reduction is due to the inclusion of genes that were subsequently characterised experimentally and genes with significant similarity to others with known functions. In addition, the structural annotation of genes has been significantly refined; 27% of gene structures have been changed since 2002, comprising changes in exon-intron boundaries, addition or deletion of exons and the addition or deletion of genes. The sequence has also undergone significant improvements. In addition to the correction of a large number of single-base and insertion or deletion errors, a major miss-assembly between the subtelomeres of chromosome 7 and 8 has been corrected. As the number of sequenced isolates continues to grow rapidly, a single reference genome will not be an adequate basis for interpretating intra-species sequence diversity. We therefore describe in this publication a population reference genome of P. falciparum, called Pfref1. This reference will enable the community to map to regions that are not present in the current assembly. P. falciparum 3D7 will be continued to be maintained with ongoing curation ensuring continual improvements in annotation quality.


September 22, 2019  |  

Plasmodium knowlesi: a superb in vivo nonhuman primate model of antigenic variation in malaria.

Antigenic variation in malaria was discovered in Plasmodium knowlesi studies involving longitudinal infections of rhesus macaques (M. mulatta). The variant proteins, known as the P. knowlesi Schizont Infected Cell Agglutination (SICA) antigens and the P. falciparum Erythrocyte Membrane Protein 1 (PfEMP1) antigens, expressed by the SICAvar and var multigene families, respectively, have been studied for over 30 years. Expression of the SICA antigens in P. knowlesi requires a splenic component, and specific antibodies are necessary for variant antigen switch events in vivo. Outstanding questions revolve around the role of the spleen and the mechanisms by which the expression of these variant antigen families are regulated. Importantly, the longitudinal dynamics and molecular mechanisms that govern variant antigen expression can be studied with P. knowlesi infection of its mammalian and vector hosts. Synchronous infections can be initiated with established clones and studied at multi-omic levels, with the benefit of computational tools from systems biology that permit the integration of datasets and the design of explanatory, predictive mathematical models. Here we provide an historical account of this topic, while highlighting the potential for maximizing the use of P. knowlesi – macaque model systems and summarizing exciting new progress in this area of research.


September 22, 2019  |  

A reference genome and methylome for the Plasmodium knowlesi A1-H.1 line.

Plasmodium knowlesi, a common parasite of macaques, is recognised as a significant cause of human malaria in Malaysia. The P. knowlesi A1H1 line has been adapted to continuous culture in human erythrocytes, successfully providing an in vitro model to study the parasite. We have assembled a reference genome for the PkA1-H.1 line using PacBio long read combined with Illumina short read sequence data. Compared with the H-strain reference, the new reference has improved genome coverage and a novel description of methylation sites. The PkA1-H.1 reference will enhance the capabilities of the in vitro model to improve the understanding of P. knowlesi infection in humans. Copyright © 2017 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Ltd.. All rights reserved.


September 22, 2019  |  

Comparative heterochromatin profiling reveals conserved and unique epigenome signatures linked to adaptation and development of malaria parasites.

Heterochromatin-dependent gene silencing is central to the adaptation and survival of Plasmodium falciparum malaria parasites, allowing clonally variant gene expression during blood infection in humans. By assessing genome-wide heterochromatin protein 1 (HP1) occupancy, we present a comprehensive analysis of heterochromatin landscapes across different Plasmodium species, strains, and life cycle stages. Common targets of epigenetic silencing include fast-evolving multi-gene families encoding surface antigens and a small set of conserved HP1-associated genes with regulatory potential. Many P. falciparum heterochromatic genes are marked in a strain-specific manner, increasing the parasite’s adaptive capacity. Whereas heterochromatin is strictly maintained during mitotic proliferation of asexual blood stage parasites, substantial heterochromatin reorganization occurs in differentiating gametocytes and appears crucial for the activation of key gametocyte-specific genes and adaptation of erythrocyte remodeling machinery. Collectively, these findings provide a catalog of heterochromatic genes and reveal conserved and specialized features of epigenetic control across the genus Plasmodium. Copyright © 2018 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


September 22, 2019  |  

RTS,S/AS01 malaria vaccine mismatch observed among Plasmodium falciparum isolates from southern and central Africa and globally.

The RTS,S/AS01 malaria vaccine encompasses the central repeats and C-terminal of Plasmodium falciparum circumsporozoite protein (PfCSP). Although no Phase II clinical trial studies observed evidence of strain-specific immunity, recent studies show a decrease in vaccine efficacy against non-vaccine strain parasites. In light of goals to reduce malaria morbidity, anticipating the effectiveness of RTS,S/AS01 is critical to planning widespread vaccine introduction. We deep sequenced C-terminal Pfcsp from 77 individuals living along the international border in Luapula Province, Zambia and Haut-Katanga Province, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and compared translated amino acid haplotypes to the 3D7 vaccine strain. Only 5.2% of the 193 PfCSP sequences from the Zambia-DRC border region matched 3D7 at all 84 amino acids. To further contextualize the genetic diversity sampled in this study with global PfCSP diversity, we analyzed an additional 3,809 Pfcsp sequences from the Pf3k database and constructed a haplotype network representing 15 countries from Africa and Asia. The diversity observed in our samples was similar to the diversity observed in the global haplotype network. These observations underscore the need for additional research assessing genetic diversity in P. falciparum and the impact of PfCSP diversity on RTS,S/AS01 efficacy.


September 22, 2019  |  

Genomes of all known members of a Plasmodium subgenus reveal paths to virulent human malaria.

Plasmodium falciparum, the most virulent agent of human malaria, shares a recent common ancestor with the gorilla parasite Plasmodium praefalciparum. Little is known about the other gorilla- and chimpanzee-infecting species in the same (Laverania) subgenus as P. falciparum, but none of them are capable of establishing repeated infection and transmission in humans. To elucidate underlying mechanisms and the evolutionary history of this subgenus, we have generated multiple genomes from all known Laverania species. The completeness of our dataset allows us to conclude that interspecific gene transfers, as well as convergent evolution, were important in the evolution of these species. Striking copy number and structural variations were observed within gene families and one, stevor, shows a host-specific sequence pattern. The complete genome sequence of the closest ancestor of P. falciparum enables us to estimate the timing of the beginning of speciation to be 40,000-60,000 years ago followed by a population bottleneck around 4,000-6,000 years ago. Our data allow us also to search in detail for the features of P. falciparum that made it the only member of the Laverania able to infect and spread in humans.


September 22, 2019  |  

Plasmodium vivax-like genome sequences shed new insights into Plasmodium vivax biology and evolution.

Although Plasmodium vivax is responsible for the majority of malaria infections outside Africa, little is known about its evolution and pathway to humans. Its closest genetic relative, P. vivax-like, was discovered in African great apes and is hypothesized to have given rise to P. vivax in humans. To unravel the evolutionary history and adaptation of P. vivax to different host environments, we generated using long- and short-read sequence technologies 2 new P. vivax-like reference genomes and 9 additional P. vivax-like genotypes. Analyses show that the genomes of P. vivax and P. vivax-like are highly similar and colinear within the core regions. Phylogenetic analyses clearly show that P. vivax-like parasites form a genetically distinct clade from P. vivax. Concerning the relative divergence dating, we show that the evolution of P. vivax in humans did not occur at the same time as the other agents of human malaria, thus suggesting that the transfer of Plasmodium parasites to humans happened several times independently over the history of the Homo genus. We further identify several key genes that exhibit signatures of positive selection exclusively in the human P. vivax parasites. Two of these genes have been identified to also be under positive selection in the other main human malaria agent, P. falciparum, thus suggesting their key role in the evolution of the ability of these parasites to infect humans or their anthropophilic vectors. Finally, we demonstrate that some gene families important for red blood cell (RBC) invasion (a key step of the life cycle of these parasites) have undergone lineage-specific evolution in the human parasite (e.g., reticulocyte-binding proteins [RBPs]).


September 22, 2019  |  

Evolutionary history of human Plasmodium vivax revealed by genome-wide analyses of related ape parasites.

Wild-living African apes are endemically infected with parasites that are closely related to human Plasmodium vivax, a leading cause of malaria outside Africa. This finding suggests that the origin of P. vivax was in Africa, even though the parasite is now rare in humans there. To elucidate the emergence of human P. vivax and its relationship to the ape parasites, we analyzed genome sequence data of P. vivax strains infecting six chimpanzees and one gorilla from Cameroon, Gabon, and Côte d’Ivoire. We found that ape and human parasites share nearly identical core genomes, differing by only 2% of coding sequences. However, compared with the ape parasites, human strains of P. vivax exhibit about 10-fold less diversity and have a relative excess of nonsynonymous nucleotide polymorphisms, with site-frequency spectra suggesting they are subject to greatly relaxed purifying selection. These data suggest that human P. vivax has undergone an extreme bottleneck, followed by rapid population expansion. Investigating potential host-specificity determinants, we found that ape P. vivax parasites encode intact orthologs of three reticulocyte-binding protein genes (rbp2d, rbp2e, and rbp3), which are pseudogenes in all human P. vivax strains. However, binding studies of recombinant RBP2e and RBP3 proteins to human, chimpanzee, and gorilla erythrocytes revealed no evidence of host-specific barriers to red blood cell invasion. These data suggest that, from an ancient stock of P. vivax parasites capable of infecting both humans and apes, a severely bottlenecked lineage emerged out of Africa and underwent rapid population growth as it spread globally. Copyright © 2018 the Author(s). Published by PNAS.


September 22, 2019  |  

Whole genome sequencing and microsatellite analysis of the Plasmodium falciparum E5 NF54 strain show that the var, rifin and stevor gene families follow Mendelian inheritance.

Plasmodium falciparum exhibits a high degree of inter-isolate genetic diversity in its variant surface antigen (VSA) families: P. falciparum erythrocyte membrane protein 1, repetitive interspersed family (RIFIN) and subtelomeric variable open reading frame (STEVOR). The role of recombination for the generation of this diversity is a subject of ongoing research. Here the genome of E5, a sibling of the 3D7 genome strain is presented. Short and long read whole genome sequencing (WGS) techniques (Ilumina, Pacific Bioscience) and a set of 84 microsatellites (MS) were employed to characterize the 3D7 and non-3D7 parts of the E5 genome. This is the first time that VSA genes in sibling parasites were analysed with long read sequencing technology.Of the 5733 E5 genes only 278 genes, mostly var and rifin/stevor genes, had no orthologues in the 3D7 genome. WGS and MS analysis revealed that chromosomal crossovers occurred at a rate of 0-3 per chromosome. var, stevor and rifin genes were inherited within the respective non-3D7 or 3D7 chromosomal context. 54 of the 84 MS PCR fragments correctly identified the respective MS as 3D7- or non-3D7 and this correlated with var and rifin/stevor gene inheritance in the adjacent chromosomal regions. E5 had 61 var and 189 rifin/stevor genes. One large non-chromosomal recombination event resulted in a new var gene on chromosome 14. The remainder of the E5 3D7-type subtelomeric and central regions were identical to 3D7.The data show that the rifin/stevor and var gene families represent the most diverse compartments of the P. falciparum genome but that the majority of var genes are inherited without alterations within their respective parental chromosomal context. Furthermore, MS genotyping with 54 MS can successfully distinguish between two sibling progeny of a natural P. falciparum cross and thus can be used to investigate identity by descent in field isolates.


September 21, 2019  |  

PacBio assembly of a Plasmodium knowlesi genome sequence with Hi-C correction and manual annotation of the SICAvar gene family.

Plasmodium knowlesi has risen in importance as a zoonotic parasite that has been causing regular episodes of malaria throughout South East Asia. The P. knowlesi genome sequence generated in 2008 highlighted and confirmed many similarities and differences in Plasmodium species, including a global view of several multigene families, such as the large SICAvar multigene family encoding the variant antigens known as the schizont-infected cell agglutination proteins. However, repetitive DNA sequences are the bane of any genome project, and this and other Plasmodium genome projects have not been immune to the gaps, rearrangements and other pitfalls created by these genomic features. Today, long-read PacBio and chromatin conformation technologies are overcoming such obstacles. Here, based on the use of these technologies, we present a highly refined de novo P. knowlesi genome sequence of the Pk1(A+) clone. This sequence and annotation, referred to as the ‘MaHPIC Pk genome sequence’, includes manual annotation of the SICAvar gene family with 136 full-length members categorized as type I or II. This sequence provides a framework that will permit a better understanding of the SICAvar repertoire, selective pressures acting on this gene family and mechanisms of antigenic variation in this species and other pathogens.


July 19, 2019  |  

Differing patterns of selection and geospatial genetic diversity within two leading Plasmodium vivax candidate vaccine antigens.

Although Plasmodium vivax is a leading cause of malaria around the world, only a handful of vivax antigens are being studied for vaccine development. Here, we investigated genetic signatures of selection and geospatial genetic diversity of two leading vivax vaccine antigens–Plasmodium vivax merozoite surface protein 1 (pvmsp-1) and Plasmodium vivax circumsporozoite protein (pvcsp). Using scalable next-generation sequencing, we deep-sequenced amplicons of the 42 kDa region of pvmsp-1 (n?=?44) and the complete gene of pvcsp (n?=?47) from Cambodian isolates. These sequences were then compared with global parasite populations obtained from GenBank. Using a combination of statistical and phylogenetic methods to assess for selection and population structure, we found strong evidence of balancing selection in the 42 kDa region of pvmsp-1, which varied significantly over the length of the gene, consistent with immune-mediated selection. In pvcsp, the highly variable central repeat region also showed patterns consistent with immune selection, which were lacking outside the repeat. The patterns of selection seen in both genes differed from their P. falciparum orthologs. In addition, we found that, similar to merozoite antigens from P. falciparum malaria, genetic diversity of pvmsp-1 sequences showed no geographic clustering, while the non-merozoite antigen, pvcsp, showed strong geographic clustering. These findings suggest that while immune selection may act on both vivax vaccine candidate antigens, the geographic distribution of genetic variability differs greatly between these two genes. The selective forces driving this diversification could lead to antigen escape and vaccine failure. Better understanding the geographic distribution of genetic variability in vaccine candidate antigens will be key to designing and implementing efficacious vaccines.


July 19, 2019  |  

Complete telomere-to-telomere de novo assembly of the Plasmodium falciparum genome through long-read (>11?kb), single molecule, real-time sequencing.

The application of next-generation sequencing to estimate genetic diversity of Plasmodium falciparum, the most lethal malaria parasite, has proved challenging due to the skewed AT-richness [~80.6% (A?+?T)] of its genome and the lack of technology to assemble highly polymorphic subtelomeric regions that contain clonally variant, multigene virulence families (Ex: var and rifin). To address this, we performed amplification-free, single molecule, real-time sequencing of P. falciparum genomic DNA and generated reads of average length 12?kb, with 50% of the reads between 15.5 and 50?kb in length. Next, using the Hierarchical Genome Assembly Process, we assembled the P. falciparum genome de novo and successfully compiled all 14 nuclear chromosomes telomere-to-telomere. We also accurately resolved centromeres [~90-99% (A?+?T)] and subtelomeric regions and identified large insertions and duplications that add extra var and rifin genes to the genome, along with smaller structural variants such as homopolymer tract expansions. Overall, we show that amplification-free, long-read sequencing combined with de novo assembly overcomes major challenges inherent to studying the P. falciparum genome. Indeed, this technology may not only identify the polymorphic and repetitive subtelomeric sequences of parasite populations from endemic areas but may also evaluate structural variation linked to virulence, drug resistance and disease transmission. © The Author 2016. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of Kazusa DNA Research Institute.


July 19, 2019  |  

An improved Plasmodium cynomolgi genome assembly reveals an unexpected methyltransferase gene expansion.

Plasmodium cynomolgi, a non-human primate malaria parasite species, has been an important model parasite since its discovery in 1907. Similarities in the biology of P. cynomolgi to the closely related, but less tractable, human malaria parasite P. vivax make it the model parasite of choice for liver biology and vaccine studies pertinent to P. vivax malaria. Molecular and genome-scale studies of P. cynomolgi have relied on the current reference genome sequence, which remains highly fragmented with 1,649 unassigned scaffolds and little representation of the subtelomeres.  Methods: Using long-read sequence data (Pacific Biosciences SMRT technology), we assembled and annotated a new reference genome sequence, PcyM, sourced from an Indian rhesus monkey. We compare the newly assembled genome sequence with those of several other Plasmodium species, including a re-annotated P. coatneyi assembly.The new PcyM genome assembly is of significantly higher quality than the existing reference, comprising only 56 pieces, no gaps and an improved average gene length. Detailed manual curation has ensured a comprehensive annotation of the genome with 6,632 genes, nearly 1,000 more than previously attributed to P. cynomolgi. The new assembly also has an improved representation of the subtelomeric regions, which account for nearly 40% of the sequence. Within the subtelomeres, we identified more than 1300 Plasmodium interspersed repeat ( pir) genes, as well as a striking expansion of 36 methyltransferase pseudogenes that originated from a single copy on chromosome 9.The manually curated PcyM reference genome sequence is an important new resource for the malaria research community. The high quality and contiguity of the data have enabled the discovery of a novel expansion of methyltransferase in the subtelomeres, and illustrates the new comparative genomics capabilities that are being unlocked by complete reference genomes.


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