Ultrastructural Analysis of Fresh Plasmodium falciparum-Infected Erythrocytes and Their Cytoadherence to Human Leukocytes

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  • Departments of Immunology and Ultrastructure Research, Stockholm University, Molecular Immunology Group, Institute of Molecular Medicine, Medical Research Council Laboratories, Stockholm, Sweden
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Sixty fresh Plasmodium falciparum isolates obtained from Gambian children with mild or cerebral malaria were investigated by transmission electron microscopy for the expression of knob-like protrusions (K+) on the surface of the infected erythrocytes. More than six-hundred infected erythrocytes were analyzed. Knob-forming parasites were present in all 60 isolates. Although knobless parasites (K-) were found in 25 (42%) of the isolates, only 39 were K-, while 577 were K+. Nine of the 39 K- infected erythrocytes that were studied in greater detail appeared to be asexual parasites because they were either segmented or they lacked mitochondrial DNA-like filaments and cristae, which are abundant in immature gametocytes. No difference was observed in the relative frequency of K+K- infected erythrocytes in isolates from patients with mild or cerebral malaria. Binding of both knobby and knobless infected erythrocytes to autologous leukocytes including monocytes, neutrophils, lymphocytes and plasma cells was found in some of the primary in vitro cultures. By using P. falciparum laboratory strains of known phenotypes and leukocytes from healthy blood bank donors, it was established that this novel adherence phenomenon was related to that of cytoadherence to certain melanoma or endothelial cells. Cytoadherent infected erythrocytes that bind to leukocytes enhance antibody-independent phagocytosis and induce cellular aggregation, while non-cytoadherent or rosetting infected erythrocytes do not. We conclude that P. falciparum parasites of both the knobby and knobless phenotypes are present in natural infections, and that P. falciparum-infected erythrocytes are able to bind to a large number of human cell types. The direct binding of infected erythrocytes to immunocompetent cells may play a role in the immune response against the parasite.