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Summary

In Plasmodium falciparum infections the parasite transmission stages, the gametocytes, mature in 10 days sequestered in internal organs. Recent studies suggest that cell mechanical properties rather than adhesive interactions play a role in sequestration during gametocyte maturation. It remains instead obscure how sequestration is established, and how the earliest sexual stages, morphologically similar to asexual trophozoites, modify the infected erythrocytes and their cytoadhesive properties at the onset of gametocytogenesis. Here, purified P. falciparum early gametocytes were used to ultrastructurally and biochemically analyse parasite-induced modifications on the red blood cell surface and to measure their functional consequences on adhesion to human endothelial cells. This work revealed that stage I gametocytes are able to deform the infected erythrocytes like asexual parasites, but do not modify its surface with adhesive ‘knob’ structures and associated proteins. Reduced levels of the P. falciparum erythrocyte membrane protein 1 (PfEMP1) adhesins are exposed on the red blood cell surface bythese parasites, and the expression of the var gene family, which encodes 50–60 variants of PfEMP1, is dramatically downregulated in the transition from asexual development to gametocytogenesis. Cytoadhesion assays show that such gene expression changes and host cell surface modifications functionally result in the inability of stage I gametocytes to bind the host ligands used by the asexual parasite to bind endothelial cells. In conclusion, these results identify specific differences in molecular and cellular mechanisms of host cell remodelling and in adhesive properties, leading to clearly distinct host parasite interplays in the establishment of sequestration of stage I gametocytes and of asexual trophozoites.