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Summary

The malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum invades erythrocytes where it replicates to produce invasive merozoites, which eventually egress to repeat the cycle. Merozoite surface protein-1 (MSP1), a prime malaria vaccine candidate and one of the most abundant components of the merozoite surface, is implicated in the ligand–receptor interactions leading to invasion. MSP1 is extensively proteolytically modified, first just before egress and then during invasion. These primary and secondary processing events are mediated respectively, by two parasite subtilisin-like proteases, PfSUB1 and PfSUB2, but the function and biological importance of the processing is unknown. Here, we examine the regulation and significance of MSP1 processing. We show that primary processing is ordered, with the primary processing site closest to the C-terminal end of MSP1 being cleaved last, irrespective of polymorphisms throughout the rest of the molecule. Replacement of the secondary processing site, normally refractory to PfSUB1, with a PfSUB1-sensitive site, is deleterious to parasite growth. Our findings show that correct spatiotemporal regulation of MSP1 maturation is crucial for the function of the protein and for maintenance of the parasite asexual blood-stage life cycle.