Resurrection of the ancestral RH5 invasion ligand provides a molecular explanation for the origin of P. falciparum malaria in humans.

Francis Galaway, Ryan Yu, Anastasia Constantinou, Franck Prugnolle, Gavin J Wright

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Many important infectious diseases are the result of zoonoses, in which pathogens that normally infect animals acquire mutations that enable the breaching of species barriers to permit the infection of humans. Our understanding of the molecular events that enable host switching are often limited, and yet this is a fundamentally important question. Plasmodium falciparum, the etiological agent of severe human malaria, evolved following a zoonotic transfer of parasites from gorillas. One gene-rh5-which encodes an essential ligand for the invasion of host erythrocytes, is suspected to have played a critical role in this host switch. Genome comparisons revealed an introgressed sequence in the ancestor of P. falciparum containing rh5, which likely allowed the ancestral parasites to infect both gorilla and human erythrocytes. To test this hypothesis, we resurrected the ancestral introgressed reticulocyte-binding protein homologue 5 (RH5) sequence and used quantitative protein interaction assays to demonstrate that this ancestral protein could bind the basigin receptor from both humans and gorillas. We also showed that this promiscuous receptor binding phenotype of RH5 was shared with the parasite clade that transferred its genome segment to the ancestor of P. falciparum, while the other lineages exhibit host-specific receptor binding, confirming the central importance of this introgression event for Plasmodium host switching. Finally, since its transfer to humans, P. falciparum, and also the RH5 ligand, have evolved a strong human specificity. We show that this subsequent restriction to humans can be attributed to a single amino acid mutation in the RH5 sequence. Our findings reveal a molecular pathway for the origin and evolution of human P. falciparum malaria and may inform molecular surveillance to predict future zoonoses.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere3000490
Number of pages16
JournalPLoS Biol
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - 15 Oct 2019

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©2019 Galaway et al.


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