parasite goes bananas before s*x

That got your attention, didn’t it? It certainly got mine when I was scanning the Science alert news page a wee while ago. The parasite in question is Plasmodium, the single-celled organism that causes malaria. (I’ve written about Plasmodium before as it has a rather interesting evolutionary history.) And the research in question was published in the Journal of Cell Science – annoyingly, my institution’s subscription excludes the most recent six months’ worth of papers, so I could only read the Science alert release.

It’s an interesting story. Like the other members of its genus, Plasmodium falciparum (which causes the most severe, potentially – & frequently – lethal form of malaria) has a complex life cycle. A mosquito that bites an infected human host will probably pick up P.falciparum in the blood it ingests, & can then transmit the pathogen to the next person it bites. Once in a new host, the malaria parasite reproduces asexually & goes through a number of life-cycle stages as it infects first cells in the host’s liver & later the host’s red blood cells. As the red blood cells swell with growing numbers of the parasite, they also accumulate a range of waste products produced by Plasmodium. Eventually the cells rupture & release both Plasmodium cells (all ready to infect more red blood cells) & those cells’ wastes into the host’s bloodstream, & this is what causes the physical symptoms of malaria

Eventually the parasite metamorphoses into its reproductive phase – a phase that has the banana shape mentioned above. Strange though it may sound, apparently the crescent-like shape of these sexually-ready parasite cells is essential for their survival. Once outside the red blood cells the parasites are potentially exposed to the host’s immune system & can be targeted for destruction, but the banana shape seems to allow at least some to escape & survive long enough to be sucked up by another mosquito. (The actual plasmodial hanky-panky occurs in the mosquito’s gut.)

The Melbourne University research that’s described by Science alert has found when Plasmodium‘s ready for s*x a particular set of proteins forms a banana-shaped scaffold underneath it’s cell membane. This is interesting of itself, as it’s always nice to understand the mechanism by which something happens. But it’s made the research team rather excited, because identifying the proteins involves raises the prospect of targeting them – using a drug or perhaps a vaccine – & disrupting formation of the banana-shaped scaffold.

Which would pretty much put a dampener on any further prospects of hanky-panky, disrupting the parasite’s life cycle & so preventing the transmission of malaria. Great stuff!


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