The malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum is a master shape-shifter that morphs continuously during its complex life-cycle to exploit and evade its human and mosquito hosts. Here, captured at four different points during a nine day period, the parasite is transforming within a red blood cell (left to right) from a rounded form to a crescent shaped gametocyte. P. falciparum’s gametocyte is vital for reproduction and could be the parasite’s Achilles heel. Highly sensitive microscopic techniques have revealed that to assist the shape change, the parasite assembles a scaffold of proteins (marked green). Once transformed into its curvaceous form, the parasite travels unhindered through the blood stream and is sucked up by its new mosquito host where it mates and reproduces. Scientists are looking for ways to interrupt the scaffold assembly and so break the parasite’s life-cycle to halt its spread.
Written by Caroline Cross
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