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Plasmodium parasites, the causative agents of malaria, have developed elaborate strategies that they use to survive and thrive within different intracellular environments. During the blood stage of infection, the parasite is a master renovator of its erythrocyte host cell, and the changes in cell morphology and function that are induced by the parasite promote survival and contribute to the pathogenesis of severe malaria. In this Review, we discuss how Plasmodium parasites use the protein trafficking motif Plasmodium export element (PEXEL), protease-mediated polypeptide processing, a novel translocon termed the Plasmodium translocon of exported proteins (PTEX) and exomembranous structures to export hundreds of proteins to discrete subcellular locations in the host erythrocytes, which enables the parasite to gain access to vital nutrients and to evade the immune defence mechanisms of the host.