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BackgroundSporozoite invasion of hepatocytes is an essential step in the Plasmodium life-cycle and has similarities, at the cellular level, to merozoite invasion of erythrocytes. In the case of the Plasmodium blood-stage, efforts to identify host-pathogen protein-protein interactions have yielded important insights including vaccine candidates. In the case of sporozoite-hepatocyte invasion, the host-pathogen protein-protein interactions involved are poorly understood.MethodsTo gain a better understanding of the protein-protein interaction between the sporozoite ligands and host receptors, a systematic screen was performed. The previous Plasmodium falciparum and human surface protein ectodomain libraries were substantially extended, resulting in the creation of new libraries comprising 88 P. falciparum sporozoite protein coding sequences and 182 sequences encoding human hepatocyte surface proteins. Having expressed recombinant proteins from these sequences, a plate-based assay was used, capable of detecting low affinity interactions between recombinant proteins, modified for enhanced throughput, to screen the proteins for interactions. The novel interactions identified in the screen were characterized biochemically, and their essential role in parasite invasion was further elucidated using antibodies and genetically manipulated Plasmodium parasites.ResultsA total of 7540 sporozoite-hepatocyte protein pairs were tested under conditions capable of detecting interactions of at least 1.2 µM KD. An interaction between the human fibroblast growth factor receptor 4 (FGFR4) and the P. falciparum protein Pf34 is identified and reported here, characterizing its affinity and demonstrating the blockade of the interaction by reagents, including a monoclonal antibody. Furthermore, further interactions between Pf34 and a second P. falciparum rhoptry neck protein, PfRON6, and between human low-density lipoprotein receptor (LDLR) and the P. falciparum protein PIESP15 are identified. Conditional genetic deletion confirmed the essentiality of PfRON6 in the blood-stage, consistent with the important role of this protein in parasite lifecycle. Pf34 was refractory to attempted genetic modification. Antibodies to Pf34 abrogated the interaction and had a modest effect upon sporozoite invasion into primary human hepatocytes.ConclusionPf34 and PfRON6 may be members of a functionally important invasion complex which could be a target for future interventions. The modified interaction screening assay, protein expression libraries and P. falciparum mutant parasites reported here may be a useful tool for protein interaction discovery and antigen candidate screening which could be of wider value to the scientific community.

Original publication




Journal article


Malaria journal

Publication Date





Jenner Institute, University of Oxford, Old Road Campus Research Building, Roosevelt Drive, Oxford, OX3 7DQ, UK.


Hepatocytes, Humans, Plasmodium falciparum, Sporozoites, Membrane Proteins, Receptors, Cell Surface, Protozoan Proteins, Protein Binding, Host-Parasite Interactions, Host-Pathogen Interactions