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Uncovering the essential genes of the human malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum by saturation mutagenesis

By Pierre Bush, PhD Moderator | 04 May, 2018

Dear Colleagues,
Plasmodium falciparum is notorious for developing resistance to a number of drugs. It would be a breakthrough if we could be able to uncover all the genes that are responsible for the development of the resistance. Zhang et al. (2018) are among those who are leading this effort. Their article is attached below.
Highest Regards,

Structured Abstract

Malaria remains a devastating global parasitic disease, with the majority of malaria deaths caused by the highly virulent Plasmodium falciparum. The extreme AT-bias of the P. falciparum genome has hampered genetic studies through targeted approaches such as homologous recombination or CRISPR-Cas9, and only a few hundred P. falciparum mutants have been experimentally generated in the past decades. In this study, we have used high-throughput piggyBac transposon insertional mutagenesis and quantitative insertion site sequencing (QIseq) to reach saturation-level mutagenesis of this parasite.


Our study exploits the AT-richness of the P. falciparum genome, which provides numerous piggyBac transposon insertion targets within both gene coding and noncoding flanking sequences, to generate more than 38,000 P. falciparum mutants. At this level of mutagenesis, we could distinguish essential genes as nonmutable and dispensable genes as mutable. Subsequently, we identified 2680 genes essential for in vitro asexual blood-stage growth.


We calculated mutagenesis index scores (MISs) and mutagenesis fitness scores (MFSs) in order to functionally define the relative fitness cost of disruption for 5399 genes. A competitive growth phenotype screen confirmed that MIS and MFS were predictive of the fitness cost for in vitro asexual growth. Genes predicted to be essential included genes implicated in drug resistance—such as the “K13” Kelch propeller, mdr, and dhfr-ts—as well as targets considered to be high value for drugs development, such as pkg and cdpk5. The screen revealed essential genes that are specific to human Plasmodium parasites but absent from rodent-infective species, such as lipid metabolic genes that may be crucial to transmission commitment in human infections. MIS and MFS profiling provides a clear ranking of the relative essentiality of gene ontology (GO) functions in P. falciparum. GO pathways associated with translation, RNA metabolism, and cell cycle control are more essential, whereas genes associated with protein phosphorylation, virulence factors, and transcription are more likely to be dispensable. Last, we confirm that the proteasome-degradation pathway is a high-value druggable target on the basis of its high ratio of essential to dispensable genes, and by functionally confirming its link to the mode of action of artemisinin, the current front-line antimalarial.


Saturation-scale mutagenesis allows prioritization of intervention targets in the genome of the most important cause of malaria. The identification of more than 2680 essential genes, including ~1000 Plasmodium-conserved essential genes, will be valuable for antimalarial therapeutic research.

Attached resource:

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