The human complement system is the frontline defense mechanism against invading pathogens. The coexistence of humans and microbes throughout evolution has produced ingenious molecular mechanisms by which microorganisms escape complement attack. A common evasion strategy used by diverse pathogens is the hijacking of soluble human complement regulators to their surfaces to afford protection from complement activation. One such host regulator is factor H (FH), which acts as a negative regulator of complement to protect host tissues from aberrant complement activation. In this report, we show that Plasmodium falciparum merozoites, the invasive form of the malaria parasites, actively recruit FH and its alternative spliced form FH-like protein 1 when exposed to human serum. We have mapped the binding site in FH that recognizes merozoites and identified Pf92, a member of the six-cysteine family of Plasmodium surface proteins, as its direct interaction partner. When bound to merozoites, FH retains cofactor activity, a key function that allows it to downregulate the alternative pathway of complement. In P. falciparum parasites that lack Pf92, we observed changes in the pattern of C3b cleavage that are consistent with decreased regulation of complement activation. These results also show that recruitment of FH affords P. falciparum merozoites protection from complement-mediated lysis. Our study provides new insights on mechanisms of immune evasion of malaria parasites and highlights the important function of surface coat proteins in the interplay between complement regulation and successful infection of the host.
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