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Tag: Plasmodium

Trainee Spotlight: Grace Vick

Ph.D. student Grace Woods

My name is Grace Vick and I am a 4th year infectious diseases PhD candidate in Vasant Muralidharan’s lab. I’m originally from North Carolina and received my Bachelor’s of Science in Biology from Western Carolina University. After graduating undergraduate, I completed an internship at the Defense Forensic Science Center doing forensic biology research. After that, I spent 2 years as an ORISE Fellow at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, studying and identifying genetic markers of multi-drug resistant strains of Neisseria gonorrhoeae. I came straight to UGA through the ILS program after my fellowship at CDC.

What made you want to study science?

Ever since I was little, I’ve always spent a lot of time being outside in nature and enjoyed figuring out the intricacies of how things work. During my undergraduate, I was able to explore the different areas of science and found the molecular biology of genetics to be an interesting field that is highly translatable and still vastly unknown. After I spent a few years gaining lab experience and an appreciation for the public health concerns of infectious diseases at the CDC, I knew I wanted to pursue a PhD in that field which brought me to UGA.

Why did you choose UGA?

My experience at the CDC offered the opportunity to learn about diseases and public health issues across all sectors and countries, which led me to learn more about parasitic diseases. Previously, I knew nothing about these diseases but as I learned more about their complex and fascinating life cycles and how these diseases of poverty impact people around the world, I was captivated by this research. Because I was really interested in spending my PhD studying infectious and parasitic diseases, I found out about the CTEGD at UGA and that is what brought me here. The CTEGD is a really wonderful environment for trainees to be exposed to exciting and diverse parasitology research, and I’ve really enjoyed my experience here.

What is your research focus and why did you choose it?

Our lab works on the deadliest form of malaria, Plasmodium falciparum. P. falciparum kills over half a million people each year, with the majority of those deaths being children under the age of 5. Our lab is interested in understanding the molecular mechanisms that are essential to asexual blood stage of this parasite. My work specifically focuses on determining the role of previously unknown proteins that we have discovered are essential for asexual stage invasion of merozoites into host red blood cells. Using a combination of genetic engineering, molecular, and cellular biology techniques, I aim to determine the molecular function of these proteins in the human asexual stage invasion of red blood cells.

Have you received any awards or honors?

In addition to receiving the NIH T32 Predoctoral Fellowship, I have been invited to present at multiple national and international conferences such as Molecular Parasitology Meeting in Massachusetts and Molecular Approaches in Malaria in Lorne, Australia where I won a poster award.

What are your career goals?

When I graduate with my doctoral degree, I hope to either join governmental research or the industry sector. If I decided to head into governmental work, I would choose a career at the CDC where I could continue working in the parasitology research field and apply current public health policies to the international parasitology field. If I decide to join the biomedical industry sector, I would want to work in Research and Design at a company that designs therapeutics and diagnostics for disease prevention and treatment.

What do you hope to do for your capstone experience?

I would really love to experience fieldwork in a malaria-endemic region. I think having the experience of meeting people and learning firsthand how this disease affects millions of people every day would be very eye-opening for me since I have only seen the lab side of malaria. The ability to experience fieldwork would give me a broader experience with how malaria is researched and treated outside of the lab environment and in rural lab environments. I would love to visit Africa or South East Asia to conduct fieldwork in a malaria-endemic environment.

What is your favorite thing about Athens?

Obviously, I love the food in Athens! I love going downtown to grab food and drinks on the weekend. Otherwise, I enjoy getting out and exploring the green spaces and parks that Athens has to offer such as Sandy Creek and the North Oconee Greenway with my husband and dog.

Any advice for a student interested in this field?

I would say the best advice is to read and soak up as much as you can about parasitology both before you get into the field and after. A lot of research has overlap between different parasites and it’s helpful to know about other parasitic diseases that might not be your main focus. Plus, parasites are fun! 🙂 My other advice in general for starting graduate school is to always reach out to students in labs you’re interested in joining. Students are pretty much always willing to help give clear insight into lab dynamics, mentorship of the PI, and generally how life working in that lab is. That information is all really helpful to know when choosing which lab to join!


Support trainees like Grace by giving today to the Center for Tropical & Emerging Global Diseases.

Hepatocytes and the art of killing Plasmodium softly

Figure 1. The gap in our understanding of how hepatocytes eliminate Plasmodium.
Figure 1. The gap in our understanding of how hepatocytes eliminate Plasmodium.


The Plasmodium parasites that cause malaria undergo asymptomatic development in the parenchymal cells of the liver, the hepatocytes, prior to infecting erythrocytes and causing clinical disease. Traditionally, hepatocytes have been perceived as passive bystanders that allow hepatotropic pathogens such as Plasmodium to develop relatively unchallenged. However, now there is emerging evidence suggesting that hepatocytes can mount robust cell-autonomous immune responses that target Plasmodium, limiting its progression to the blood and reducing the incidence and severity of clinical malaria. Here we discuss our current understanding of hepatocyte cell-intrinsic immune responses that target Plasmodium and how these pathways impact malaria.

Camila Marques-da-Silva, Clyde Schmidt-Silva, Samarchith P Kurup. Trends Parasitol. 2024 May 6:S1471-4922(24)00086-2. doi: 10.1016/

In Vitro Antimalarial Activity of Trichothecenes against Liver and Blood Stages of Plasmodium Species

graphical representation of abstract

Trichothecenes (TCNs) are a large group of tricyclic sesquiterpenoid mycotoxins that have intriguing structural features and remarkable biological activities. Herein, we focused on three TCNs (anguidine, verrucarin A, and verrucarol) and their ability to target both the blood and liver stages of Plasmodium species, the parasite responsible for malaria. Anguidine and verrucarin A were found to be highly effective against the blood and liver stages of malaria, while verrucarol had no effect at the highest concentration tested. However, these compounds were also found to be cytotoxic and, thus, not selective, making them unsuitable for drug development. Nonetheless, they could be useful as chemical probes for protein synthesis inhibitors due to their direct impact on parasite synthesis processes.

Prakash T Parvatkar, Steven P Maher, Yingzhao Zhao, Caitlin A Cooper, Sagan T de Castro, Julie Péneau, Amélie Vantaux, Benoît Witkowski, Dennis E Kyle, Roman Manetsch. J Nat Prod. 2024 Jan 23. doi: 10.1021/acs.jnatprod.3c01019.

Inherently Reduced Expression of ASC Restricts Caspase-1 Processing in Hepatocytes and Promotes Plasmodium Infection

Fig. 1 Inherently reduced expression of pro–caspase-1 and ASC in hepatocytes.
Inherently reduced expression of pro–caspase-1 and ASC in hepatocytes.


Inflammasome-mediated caspase-1 activation facilitates innate immune control of Plasmodium in the liver, thereby limiting the incidence and severity of clinical malaria. However, caspase-1 processing occurs incompletely in both mouse and human hepatocytes and precludes the generation of mature IL-1β or IL-18, unlike in other cells. Why this is so or how it impacts Plasmodium control in the liver has remained unknown. We show that an inherently reduced expression of the inflammasome adaptor molecule apoptosis-associated specklike protein containing CARD (ASC) is responsible for the incomplete proteolytic processing of caspase-1 in murine hepatocytes. Transgenically enhancing ASC expression in hepatocytes enabled complete caspase-1 processing, enhanced pyroptotic cell death, maturation of the proinflammatory cytokines IL-1β and IL-18 that was otherwise absent, and better overall control of Plasmodium infection in the liver of mice. This, however, impeded the protection offered by live attenuated antimalarial vaccination. Tempering ASC expression in mouse macrophages, on the other hand, resulted in incomplete processing of caspase-1. Our work shows how caspase-1 activation and function in host cells are fundamentally defined by ASC expression and offers a potential new pathway to create better disease and vaccination outcomes by modifying the latter.

Camila Marques-da-Silva, Clyde Schmidt-Silva, Rodrigo P Baptista, Samarchith P Kurup. J Immunol. 2023 Dec 27:ji2300440. doi: 10.4049/jimmunol.2300440. Online ahead of print.

Atlas of Plasmodium falciparum intraerythrocytic development using expansion microscopy

Ultrastructural expansion microscopy (U-ExM) workflow and summary of parasite structures imaged in this study.
Ultrastructural expansion microscopy (U-ExM) workflow and summary of parasite structures imaged in this study.

Apicomplexan parasites exhibit tremendous diversity in much of their fundamental cell biology, but study of these organisms using light microscopy is often hindered by their small size. Ultrastructural expansion microscopy (U-ExM) is a microscopy preparation method that physically expands the sample by ~4.5×. Here, we apply U-ExM to the human malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum during the asexual blood stage of its lifecycle to understand how this parasite is organized in three dimensions. Using a combination of dye-conjugated reagents and immunostaining, we have cataloged 13 different P. falciparum structures or organelles across the intraerythrocytic development of this parasite and made multiple observations about fundamental parasite cell biology. We describe that the outer centriolar plaque and its associated proteins anchor the nucleus to the parasite plasma membrane during mitosis. Furthermore, the rhoptries, Golgi, basal complex, and inner membrane complex, which form around this anchoring site while nuclei are still dividing, are concurrently segregated and maintain an association to the outer centriolar plaque until the start of segmentation. We also show that the mitochondrion and apicoplast undergo sequential fission events while maintaining an association with the outer centriolar plaque during cytokinesis. Collectively, this study represents the most detailed ultrastructural analysis of P. falciparum during its intraerythrocytic development to date and sheds light on multiple poorly understood aspects of its organelle biogenesis and fundamental cell biology.

Benjamin Liffner, Ana Karla Cepeda Diaz, James Blauwkamp, David Anaguano, Sonja Frolich, Vasant Muralidharan, Danny W Wilson, Jeffrey D Dvorin, Sabrina Absalon. Elife. 2023 Dec 18:12:RP88088. doi: 10.7554/eLife.88088.

Blood meals from ‘dead-end’ vertebrate hosts enhance transmission potential of malaria-infected mosquitoes

graphical abstract

Ingestion of an additional blood meal(s) by a hematophagic insect can accelerate development of several vector-borne parasites and pathogens. Most studies, however, offer blood from the same vertebrate host species as the original challenge (for e.g., human for primary and additional blood meals). Here, we show a second blood meal from bovine and canine hosts can also enhance sporozoite migration in Anopheles stephensi mosquitoes infected with the human- and rodent-restricted Plasmodium falciparum and P. berghei, respectively. The extrinsic incubation period (time to sporozoite appearance in salivary glands) showed more consistent reductions with blood from human and bovine donors than canine blood, although the latter’s effect may be confounded by the toxicity, albeit non-specific, associated with the anticoagulant used to collect whole blood from donors. The complex patterns of enhancement highlight the limitations of a laboratory system but are nonetheless reminiscent of parasite host-specificity and mosquito adaptations, and the genetic predisposition of An. stephensi for bovine blood. We suggest that in natural settings, a blood meal from any vertebrate host could accentuate the risk of human infections by P. falciparum: targeting vectors that also feed on animals, via endectocides for instance, may reduce the number of malaria-infected mosquitoes and thus directly lower residual transmission. Since endectocides also benefit animal health, our results underscore the utility of the One Health framework, which postulates that human health and well-being is interconnected with that of animals. We posit this framework will be further validated if our observations also apply to other vector-borne diseases which together are responsible for some of the highest rates of morbidity and mortality in socio-economically disadvantaged populations.

Ashutosh K Pathak, Justine C Shiau, Rafael C S Freitas, Dennis E Kyle. One Health. 2023 Jun 9:17:100582. doi: 10.1016/j.onehlt.2023.100582. eCollection 2023 Dec.

Time-resolved proximity biotinylation implicates a porin protein in export of transmembrane malaria parasite effectors

Figure 1 Generation of SBP1TbID mutants.
Generation of SBP1TbID mutants.

The malaria-causing parasite, Plasmodium falciparum completely remodels its host red blood cell (RBC) through the export of several hundred parasite proteins, including transmembrane proteins, across multiple membranes to the RBC. However, the process by which these exported membrane proteins are extracted from the parasite plasma membrane for export remains unknown. To address this question, we fused the exported membrane protein, skeleton binding protein 1 (SBP1), with TurboID, a rapid, efficient, and promiscuous biotin ligase (SBP1TbID). Using time-resolved, proximity biotinylation, and label-free quantitative proteomics, we identified two groups of SBP1TbID interactors: early interactors (pre-export) and late interactors (post-export). Notably, two promising membrane-associated proteins were identified as pre-export interactors, one of which possesses a predicted translocon domain, that could facilitate the export of membrane proteins. Further investigation using conditional mutants of these candidate proteins showed that these proteins were essential for asexual growth and localize to the host-parasite interface during early stages of the intraerythrocytic cycle. These data suggest that they may play a role in ushering membrane proteins from the PPM for export to the host RBC.

David Anaguano, Watcharatip Dedkhad, Carrie F Brooks, David W Cobb, Vasant Muralidharan. J Cell Sci. 2023 Sep 29;jcs.260506. doi: 10.1242/jcs.260506

Generating Genetically Modified Plasmodium berghei Sporozoites

Malaria is a deadly disease caused by the parasite Plasmodium and is transmitted through the bite of female Anopheles mosquitoes. The sporozoite stage of Plasmodium deposited by mosquitoes in the skin of vertebrate hosts undergoes a phase of mandatory development in the liver before initiating clinical malaria. We know little about the biology of Plasmodium development in the liver; access to the sporozoite stage and the ability to genetically modify such sporozoites are critical tools for studying the nature of Plasmodium infection and the resulting immune response in the liver. Here, we present a comprehensive protocol for the generation of transgenic Plasmodium berghei sporozoites. We genetically modify blood-stage P. berghei and use this form to infect Anopheles mosquitoes when they take a blood meal. After the transgenic parasites undergo development in the mosquitoes, we isolate the sporozoite stage of the parasite from the mosquito salivary glands for in vivo and in vitro experimentation. We demonstrate the validity of the protocol by generating sporozoites of a novel strain of P. berghei expressing the green fluorescent protein (GFP) subunit 11 (GFP11), and show how it could be used to investigate the biology of liver-stage malaria.

Carson Bowers, Samarchith P Kurup. J Vis Exp. 2023 May 5;(195). doi: 10.3791/64992.

Cripowellins Pause Plasmodium falciparum Intraerythrocytic Development at the Ring Stage


Cripowellins from Crinum erubescens are known pesticidal and have potent antiplasmodial activity. To gain mechanistic insights to this class of natural products, studies to determine the timing of action of cripowellins within the asexual intraerythrocytic cycle of Plasmodium falciparum were performed and led to the observation that this class of natural products induced reversible cytostasis in the ring stage within the first 24 h of treatment. The transcriptional program necessary for P. falciparum to progress through the asexual intraerythrocytic life cycle is well characterized. Whole transcriptome abundance analysis showed that cripowellin B “pauses” the transcriptional program necessary to progress through the intraerythrocytic life cycle coinciding with the lack of morphological progression of drug treated parasites. In addition, cripowellin B-treated parasites re-enter transcriptional progression after treatment was removed. This study highlights the use of cripowellins as chemical probes to reveal new aspects of cell cycle progression of the asexual ring stage of P. falciparum which could be leveraged for the generation of future antimalarial therapeutics.

Joshua H Butler, Heather J Painter, Emily K Bremers, Priscilla Krai, Manuel Llinás, Maria B Cassera. Molecules. 2023 Mar 13;28(6):2600. doi: 10.3390/molecules28062600.

AIM2 sensors mediate immunity to Plasmodium infection in hepatocytes

Malaria, caused by Plasmodium parasites is a severe disease affecting millions of people around the world. Plasmodium undergoes obligatory development and replication in the hepatocytes, before initiating the life-threatening blood-stage of malaria. Although the natural immune responses impeding Plasmodium infection and development in the liver are key to controlling clinical malaria and transmission, those remain relatively unknown. Here we demonstrate that the DNA of Plasmodium parasites is sensed by cytosolic AIM2 (absent in melanoma 2) receptors in the infected hepatocytes, resulting in Caspase-1 activation. Remarkably, Caspase-1 was observed to undergo unconventional proteolytic processing in hepatocytes, resulting in the activation of the membrane pore-forming protein, Gasdermin D, but not inflammasome-associated proinflammatory cytokines. Nevertheless, this resulted in the elimination of Plasmodium-infected hepatocytes and the control of malaria infection in the liver. Our study uncovers a pathway of natural immunity critical for the control of malaria in the liver.

Camila Marques-da-Silva, Barun Poudel, Rodrigo P Baptista, Kristen Peissig, Lisa S Hancox, Justine C Shiau, Lecia L Pewe, Melanie J Shears, Thirumala-Devi Kanneganti, Photini Sinnis, Dennis E Kyle, Prajwal Gurung, John T Harty, Samarchith P Kurup. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2023 Jan 10;120(2):e2210181120. doi: 10.1073/pnas.2210181120.