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Plasmodium falciparum population genetic complexity influences transcriptional profile and immune recognition of highly related genotypic clusters

Abstract

As transmission intensity has declined in Senegal, so has the genetic complexity of circulating Plasmodium falciparum parasites, resulting in specific genotypes emerging and persisting over years. We address whether changes in parasite genetic signatures can alter the immune repertoire to variant surface antigens, and whether such responses can influence the expansion or contraction of specific parasite genotypes in the population. We characterize parasites within genotypic clusters, defined as identical by a 24-SNP molecular barcode and a haplotype identifier for other highly polymorphic loci; we measure expression of variant surface antigens (VSA) such as PfEMP-1 by transcript expression typing and expressed var DBL1α sequencing in ex vivo and short-term adapted RNA samples; and we measure IgG responses against VSAs from short-term adapted parasites. We find that parasites within genotypic clusters are genetically identical at other highly polymorphic loci. These parasites express similar Ups var classes and largely the same dominant var DBL1α sequences ex vivo. These parasites are recognized similarly by anti-VSA antibodies after short-term adaptation to culture; however, antibody responses do not correlate with genotype frequencies over time. Both genotype-specific and multiple genotype-reactive surface IgG responses are observed in this population. Parasites with identical genomes are extremely similar in their expression and host antibody recognition of VSAs. Monitoring changes in population-level parasite genomics and transmission dynamics is critical, as fluctuations will influence the breadth of resulting host immune responses to circulating parasite genotypes. These findings suggest shared immune recognition of genetically similar parasites, which has implications for both our understanding of immunity and vaccine development strategies in malaria elimination settings.

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