Variable var transition rates underlie antigenic variation in malaria.
ABSTRACT: Plasmodium falciparum erythrocyte membrane protein 1 (PfEMP1) is expressed on the surface of infected erythrocytes where it plays a central role in both infected erythrocytes cytoadhesion and immune evasion. Switches in clonal expression of PfEMP1 result in antigenic variation that facilitates long-term chronic infection of the host. The var gene family encodes PfEMP1 variants, with transcriptional switching between different var variants providing the molecular basis for antigenic variation. Despite the importance of var transcriptional switching in the evasion of the immune response, little is known about the way in which this process is regulated. Here we report the measurement of transition on and off rates for a series of var gene variants. We find (i) that on and off rates for a given variant are dissimilar, (ii) that these rates vary dramatically among different variants, and (iii) that in isogenic clones expressing the same var gene, both on and off rates are constant and appear to be an intrinsic property of that particular gene. These data would suggest that the information that determines the probability of the activation or silencing of var genes is present in their surrounding DNA. Furthermore, some transitions appear to be disallowed depending on the recent variant antigen expression history of the parasite clone. These findings have important implications for both the underlying molecular mechanisms of antigenic variation and the processes that promote chronicity of infection in vivo.
Project description:Plasmodium falciparum relies on monoallelic expression of 1 of 60 var virulence genes for antigenic variation and host immune evasion. Each var gene contains a conserved intron which has been implicated in previous studies in both activation and repression of transcription via several epigenetic mechanisms, including interaction with the var promoter, production of long noncoding RNAs (lncRNAs), and localization to repressive perinuclear sites. However, functional studies have relied primarily on artificial expression constructs. Using the recently developed P. falciparum clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR)/Cas9 system, we directly deleted the var2csa P. falciparum 3D7_1200600 (Pf3D7_1200600) endogenous intron, resulting in an intronless var gene in a natural, marker-free chromosomal context. Deletion of the var2csa intron resulted in an upregulation of transcription of the var2csa gene in ring-stage parasites and subsequent expression of the PfEMP1 protein in late-stage parasites. Intron deletion did not affect the normal temporal regulation and subsequent transcriptional silencing of the var gene in trophozoites but did result in increased rates of var gene switching in some mutant clones. Transcriptional repression of the intronless var2csa gene could be achieved via long-term culture or panning with the CD36 receptor, after which reactivation was possible with chondroitin sulfate A (CSA) panning. These data suggest that the var2csa intron is not required for silencing or activation in ring-stage parasites but point to a subtle role in regulation of switching within the var gene family.IMPORTANCEPlasmodium falciparum is the most virulent species of malaria parasite, causing high rates of morbidity and mortality in those infected. Chronic infection depends on an immune evasion mechanism termed antigenic variation, which in turn relies on monoallelic expression of 1 of ~60 var genes. Understanding antigenic variation and the transcriptional regulation of monoallelic expression is important for developing drugs and/or vaccines. The var gene family encodes the antigenic surface proteins that decorate infected erythrocytes. Until recently, studying the underlying genetic elements that regulate monoallelic expression in P. falciparum was difficult, and most studies relied on artificial systems such as episomal reporter genes. Our study was the first to use CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing for the functional study of an important, conserved genetic element of var genes-the intron-in an endogenous, episome-free manner. Our findings shed light on the role of the var gene intron in transcriptional regulation of monoallelic expression.
Project description:Much of the success of Plasmodium falciparum in establishing persistent infections is attributed to immune evasion through antigenic variation. This process involves periodically exchanging variants of the major surface antigen PfEMP1, a protein also responsible for parasite cytoadherence. PfEMP1 is encoded by genes of the 60-member var family, located at subtelomeric and internal chromosome loci. The active or silenced state of var genes is heritable, and its control by nonsequence information remains puzzling. Using FISH analysis, we demonstrate that both internal and subtelomeric var genes are positioned at the nuclear periphery in their repressed state. Upon activation, the same var genes are still found in the periphery, indicating that this zone can be transcriptionally competent, rather than uniformly silenced. However, activation of a var gene is linked with altered positioning at the nuclear periphery, with subtelomeric var loci exiting chromosome end clusters and being relocated to distinct nuclear sites. Serial sectioning of parasite nuclei reveals areas of both condensed and noncondensed chromatin at the nuclear periphery. Our results demonstrate that regulation of antigenic variation is associated with subnuclear position effects and point to the existence of transcriptionally permissive perinuclear zones for var genes.
Project description:Antigenic variation is a subtle process of fundamental importance to the survival of a microbial pathogen. In Plasmodium falciparum malaria, PfEMP1 is the major variable antigen and adhesin expressed at the surface of the infected erythrocyte, which is encoded for by members of a family of 60 var-genes. Peri-nuclear repositioning and epigenetic mechanisms control their mono-allelic expression. The switching of PfEMP1 depends in part on variable transition rates and short-lived immune responses to shared minor epitopes. Here we show var-genes to switch to a common gene that is highly transcribed, but sparsely translated into PfEMP1 and not expressed at the erythrocyte surface. Highly clonal and adhesive P. falciparum, which expressed distinct var-genes and the corresponding PfEMP1s at onset, were propagated without enrichment or panning. The parasites successively and spontaneously switched to transcribe a shared var-gene (var2csa) matched by the loss of PfEMP1 surface expression and host cell-binding. The var2csa gene repositioned in the peri-nuclear area upon activation, away from the telomeric clusters and heterochromatin to transcribe spliced, full-length RNA. Despite abundant transcripts, the level of intracellular PfEMP1 was low suggesting post-transcriptional mechanisms to partake in protein expression. In vivo, off-switching and translational repression may constitute one pathway, among others, coordinating PfEMP1 expression.
Project description:Antigenic variation in Plasmodium falciparum is regulated by transcriptional switches among members of the var gene family, each expressed in a mutually exclusive manner and encoding a different variant of the surface antigens collectively named PfEMP1. Antigenic switching starts when the first merozoites egress from the liver and begin their asexual proliferation within red blood cells. By erasing the epigenetic memory we created parasites with no var background, similar to merozoites that egress from the liver where no var gene is expressed. Creating a null-var background enabled us to investigate the onset of antigenic switches at the early phase of infection. At the onset of switching, var transcription pattern is heterogeneous with numerous genes transcribed at low levels including upsA vars, a subtype that was implicated in severe malaria, which are rarely activated in growing cultures. Analysis of subsequent in vitro switches shows that the probability of a gene to turn on or off is not associated with its chromosomal position or promoter type per se but on intrinsic properties of each gene. We concluded that var switching is determined by gene specific associated switch rates rather than general promoter type or locus associated switch rates. In addition, we show that fine tuned reduction in var transcription increases their switch rate, indicating that transcriptional perturbation can alter antigenic switching.
Project description:Cytoadherance of Plasmodium falciparum-infected erythrocytes in the brain, organs and peripheral microvasculature is linked to morbidity and mortality associated with severe malaria. Parasite-derived P. falciparum Erythrocyte Membrane Protein 1 (PfEMP1) molecules displayed on the erythrocyte surface are responsible for cytoadherance and undergo antigenic variation in the course of an infection. Antigenic variation of PfEMP1 is achieved by in situ switching and mutually exclusive transcription of the var gene family, a process that is controlled by epigenetic mechanisms. Here we report characterisation of the P. falciparum silent information regulator's A and B (PfSir2A and PfSir2B) and their involvement in mutual exclusion and silencing of the var gene repertoire. Analysis of P. falciparum parasites lacking either PfSir2A or PfSir2B shows that these NAD(+)-dependent histone deacetylases are required for silencing of different var gene subsets classified by their conserved promoter type. We also demonstrate that in the absence of either of these molecules mutually exclusive expression of var genes breaks down. We show that var gene silencing originates within the promoter and PfSir2 paralogues are involved in cis spreading of silenced chromatin into adjacent regions. Furthermore, parasites lacking PfSir2A but not PfSir2B have considerably longer telomeric repeats, demonstrating a role for this molecule in telomeric end protection. This work highlights the pivotal but distinct role for both PfSir2 paralogues in epigenetic silencing of P. falciparum virulence genes and the control of pathogenicity of malaria infection.
Project description:The Plasmodium falciparum var multigene family encodes P. falciparum erythrocyte membrane protein 1, which is responsible for the pathogenic traits of antigenic variation and adhesion of infected erythrocytes to host receptors during malaria infection. Clonal antigenic variation of P. falciparum erythrocyte membrane protein 1 is controlled by the switching between exclusively transcribed var genes. The tremendous diversity of the var gene repertoire both within and between parasite strains is critical for the parasite's strategy of immune evasion. We show that ectopic recombination between var genes occurs during mitosis, providing P. falciparum with opportunities to diversify its var repertoire, even during the course of a single infection. We show that the regulation of the recombined var gene has been disrupted, resulting in its persistent activation although the regulation of most other var genes is unaffected. The var promoter and intron of the recombined var gene are not responsible for its atypically persistent activity, and we conclude that altered subtelomeric cis sequence is the most likely cause of the persistent activity of the recombined var gene.
Project description:Epigenetic processes are the main conductors of phenotypic variation in eukaryotes. The malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum employs antigenic variation of the major surface antigen PfEMP1, encoded by 60 var genes, to evade acquired immune responses. PfEMP1 also mediates sequestration of infected erythrocytes in the microvasculature, which is directly linked to severe malaria outcomes. Antigenic variation of PfEMP1 occurs through in situ switches in mono-allelic var gene transcription, which is PfSIR2-dependent and associated with the presence of repressive H3K9me3 marks at silenced loci. Here, we show that the P. falciparum ortholog of heterochromatin protein 1 (PfHP1) binds to H3K9me3 and constitutes a major component of heterochromatin in perinuclear chromosome end clusters. High-resolution genome-wide chromatin immuno-precipitation demonstrates the striking association of PfHP1 with non-syntenic virulence gene arrays in subtelomeric and chromosome-internal islands. These include not only var genes but the majority of P. falciparum lineage-specific gene families coding for exported proteins involved in host-parasite interactions. Over-expression of PfHP1 resulted in decreased expression of a small number of (virulance) genes and indicated the presence of well-defined heterochromatic boundaries.. In summary, we uncover an unprecedented function of HP1 as a mayor regulator of virulence gene silencing and phenotypic variation, which will be instrumental for our understanding of this widely used survival strategy of unicellular pathogens. Overall design: One experimental sample.
Project description:The most polymorphic gene family in P. falciparum is the ?60 var genes distributed across parasite chromosomes, both in the subtelomeres and in internal regions. They encode hypervariable surface proteins known as P. falciparum erythrocyte membrane protein 1 (PfEMP1) that are critical for pathogenesis and immune evasion in Plasmodium falciparum. How var gene sequence diversity is generated is not currently completely understood. To address this, we constructed large clone trees and performed whole genome sequence analysis to study the generation of novel var gene sequences in asexually replicating parasites. While single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) were scattered across the genome, structural variants (deletions, duplications, translocations) were focused in and around var genes, with considerable variation in frequency between strains. Analysis of more than 100 recombination events involving var exon 1 revealed that the average nucleotide sequence identity of two recombining exons was only 63% (range: 52.7-72.4%) yet the crossovers were error-free and occurred in such a way that the resulting sequence was in frame and domain architecture was preserved. Var exon 1, which encodes the immunologically exposed part of the protein, recombined in up to 0.2% of infected erythrocytes in vitro per life cycle. The high rate of var exon 1 recombination indicates that millions of new antigenic structures could potentially be generated each day in a single infected individual. We propose a model whereby var gene sequence polymorphism is mainly generated during the asexual part of the life cycle.
Project description:PfEMP1 (erythrocyte membrane protein 1) adhesins play a pivotal role in the pathophysiology of falciparum malaria, by mediating sequestration of Plasmodium falciparum-infected erythrocytes in the microvasculature. PfEMP1 variants are expressed by var genes and are presented on membrane elevations, termed knobs. However, the organization of PfEMP1 on knobs is largely unclear. Here, we use super-resolution microscopy and genetically altered parasites expressing a modified var2csa gene in which the coding sequence of the photoactivatable mEOS2 was inserted to determine the number and distribution of PfEMP1 on single knobs. The data were verified by quantitative fluorescence-activated cell sorting analysis and immuno-electron microscopy together with stereology methods. We show that knobs contain 3.3 ± 1.7 and 4.3 ± 2.5 PfEMP1 molecules, predominantly placed on the knob tip, in parasitized erythrocytes containing wild type and sickle haemoglobin, respectively. The ramifications of our findings for cytoadhesion and immune evasion are discussed.
Project description:Antigenic variation in Plasmodium falciparum malaria is mediated by transcriptional switches between different members of the multicopy var gene family. Each var gene encodes a member of a group of heterogeneous surface proteins collectively referred to as PfEMP1. Mutually exclusive expression ensures that an individual parasite only transcribes a single var gene at a time. In this work we studied var gene switching to determine if transcriptional switches favour expression of particular subgroups of var genes and if var gene activation within a clonal population of parasites follows a predetermined order. We show that in clonal parasite populations, expression of var genes located in the central regions of chromosomes is remarkably stable and that they rarely undergo transcriptional switches in the absence of selection. In contrast, parasites expressing subtelomerically located var genes readily switched to alternative var loci. We confirmed these observations by generating transgenic parasites carrying drug selectable markers in subtelomeric and central var loci and monitoring switching after release from selection. Our data show that different var genes have different intrinsic switching rates that correlate with chromosomal location, and that there is no predetermined order of expression.