Recombination events among virulence genes in malaria parasites are associated with G-quadruplex-forming DNA motifs

A Stanton, LM Harris, G Graham, CJ Merrick

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    Background: Malaria parasites of the genus Plasmodium possess large hyper-variable families of antigen-encoding genes. These are often variantly-expressed and are major virulence factors for immune evasion and the maintenance of chronic infections. Recombination and diversification of these gene families occurs readily, and may be promoted by G-quadruplex (G4) DNA motifs within and close to the variant genes. G4s have been shown to cause replication fork stalling, DNA breakage and recombination in model systems, but these motifs remain largely unstudied in Plasmodium.

    Results: We examined the nature and distribution of putative G4-forming sequences in multiple Plasmodium genomes, finding that their co-distribution with variant gene families is conserved across different Plasmodium species that have different types of variant gene families. In P. falciparum, where a large set of recombination events that occurred over time in cultured parasites has been mapped, we found a strong spatial association between these recombination events and putative G4-forming sequences. Finally, we searched Plasmodium genomes for the three classes of helicase that can unwind G4s: Plasmodium spp. have no identifiable homologue of the highly efficient G4 helicase PIF1, but they do encode two putative RecQ helicases and one homologue of the RAD3-family helicase FANCJ.

    Conclusions: Our analyses, conducted at the whole-genome level in multiple species of Plasmodium, support the concept that G4s are likely to be involved in recombination and diversification of antigen-encoding gene families in this important protozoan pathogen.
    Original languageEnglish
    Article number859
    Number of pages16
    JournalBMC Genomics
    Publication statusPublished - 3 Nov 2016


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