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A var gene promoter controls allelic exclusion of virulence genes in Plasmodium falciparum malaria.

Voss TS, Healer J, Marty AJ, Duffy MF, Thompson JK, Beeson JG, Reeder JC, Crabb BS, Cowman AF

  • Journal Nature

  • Published 28 Dec 2005

  • Volume 439

  • ISSUE 7079

  • Pagination 1004-8

  • DOI 10.1038/nature04407


Mono-allelic expression of gene families is used by many organisms to mediate phenotypic variation of surface proteins. In the apicomplexan parasite Plasmodium falciparum, responsible for the severe form of malaria in humans, this is exemplified by antigenic variation of the highly polymorphic P. falciparum erythrocyte membrane protein 1 (PfEMP1). PfEMP1, encoded by the 60-member var gene family, represents a major virulence factor due to its central role in immune evasion and intravascular parasite sequestration. Mutually exclusive expression of PfEMP1 is controlled by epigenetic mechanisms involving chromatin modification and perinuclear var locus repositioning. Here we show that a var promoter mediates the nucleation and spreading of stably inherited silenced chromatin. Transcriptional activation of this promoter occurs at the nuclear periphery in association with chromosome-end clusters. Additionally, the var promoter sequence is sufficient to infiltrate a transgene into the allelic exclusion programme of var gene expression, as transcriptional activation of this transgene results in silencing of endogenous var gene transcription. These results show that a var promoter is sufficient for epigenetic silencing and mono-allelic transcription of this virulence gene family, and are fundamental for our understanding of antigenic variation in P. falciparum. Furthermore, the PfEMP1 knockdown parasites obtained in this study will be important tools to increase our understanding of P. falciparum-mediated virulence and immune evasion.