April 21, 2020  |  

Rapid antigen diversification through mitotic recombination in the human malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum.

Malaria parasites possess the remarkable ability to maintain chronic infections that fail to elicit a protective immune response, characteristics that have stymied vaccine development and cause people living in endemic regions to remain at risk of malaria despite previous exposure to the disease. These traits stem from the tremendous antigenic diversity displayed by parasites circulating in the field. For Plasmodium falciparum, the most virulent of the human malaria parasites, this diversity is exemplified by the variant gene family called var, which encodes the major surface antigen displayed on infected red blood cells (RBCs). This gene family exhibits virtually limitless diversity when var gene repertoires from different parasite isolates are compared. Previous studies indicated that this remarkable genome plasticity results from extensive ectopic recombination between var genes during mitotic replication; however, the molecular mechanisms that direct this process to antigen-encoding loci while the rest of the genome remains relatively stable were not determined. Using targeted DNA double-strand breaks (DSBs) and long-read whole-genome sequencing, we show that a single break within an antigen-encoding region of the genome can result in a cascade of recombination events leading to the generation of multiple chimeric var genes, a process that can greatly accelerate the generation of diversity within this family. We also found that recombinations did not occur randomly, but rather high-probability, specific recombination products were observed repeatedly. These results provide a molecular basis for previously described structured rearrangements that drive diversification of this highly polymorphic gene family.


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.


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