The development of differentiated sexual stages (gametocytes) within human red blood cells is essential for the propagation of the malaria parasite, since only mature gametocytes will survive in the mosquito’s midgut. Hence gametocytogenesis is a pre-requisite for transmission of the disease. Physiological changes involved in sexual differentiation are still enigmatic. In particular the lipid metabolism—despite being central to cellular regulation and development—is not well explored.
Here the lipid profiles of red blood cells infected with the five different sexual stages of Plasmodium falciparum were analysed by mass spectrometry and compared to those from uninfected and asexual trophozoite infected erythrocytes.
Fundamental differences between erythrocytes infected with the different parasite stages were revealed. In mature gametocytes many lipids that decrease in the trophozoite and early gametocyte infected red blood cells are regained. In particular, regulators of membrane fluidity, cholesterol and sphingomyelin, increased significantly during gametocyte maturation. Neutral lipids (serving mainly as caloriometric reserves) increased from 3 % of total lipids in uninfected to 27 % in stage V gametocyte infected red blood cells. The major membrane lipid class (phospholipids) decreased during gametocyte development.
The lipid profiles of infected erythrocytes are characteristic for the particular parasite life cycle and maturity stages of gametocytes. The obtained lipid profiles are crucial in revealing the lipid metabolism of malaria parasites and identifying targets to interfere with this deadly disease.