Researchers at the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB) in India and a unit of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in France have made a key discovery about a molecule that helps the malaria parasite infect human cells. India is one of the countries most affected by this disease, which has infected 300 million people across the world and leads to over one million fatalities per year. The breakthrough, which was achieved at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble, may represent an important step towards finding new therapies. The study appears in this weeks online edition of Nature (December 21).
Malaria is caused by a one-celled organism called Plasmodium, which is passed to humans through the bite of Anopheles mosquitoes. The parasite replicates inside red blood cells, which eventually burst. In order to enter these cells, it first has to bind to the cell through interactions of proteins on the surfaces of red blood cells and the parasite.
The new study reveals key features of a protein on the surface of Plasmodium that permits it to bind. The researchers obtained crystals of a module of this protein, called the Duffy-Binding Like (DBL) domain, which directly interacts with a "receptor" protein on red blood cells. Then they examined the crystals using very powerful X-rays of the UK-Medical Research Council Beamline BM14 at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble. X-ray crystallography is one of the only methods available to create atom-by-atom maps of proteins, which are too small to be seen by microscopes.
Anna-Lynn Wegener | EurekAlert!
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