Molecular interactions between the VAR2CSA protein, expressed on the surface of Plasmodium falciparum-infected erythrocytes, and placental chondroitin sulfate A (CSA) are primarily responsible for pregnancy-associated malaria (PAM). Interrupting these interactions may prevent or ameliorate the severity of PAM. Several of the Duffy binding-like (DBL) domains of VAR2CSA, including the DBL3x domain, have been shown to bind CSA in vitro, but a more detailed understanding of how DBL domains bind CSA is needed. In this study, we demonstrate that subdomain 3 (S3), one of the three subdomains of VAR2CSA DBL3x by itself, is the major contributor toward CSA binding. NMR spectroscopy and flow cytometry analyses show that S3 and the intact DBL3x domain bind CSA similarly. Mutations within the S3 portion of DBL3x markedly affect CSA binding. Both recombinant molecules, S3 and DBL3x, are recognized by antibodies in the plasma of previously pregnant women living in malaria-endemic regions of Mali, but much less so by plasma from men of the same regions. As the S3 sequence is highly conserved in all known VAR2CSA proteins expressed by different parasite isolates obtained from various malaria endemic areas of the world, the identification of S3 as an independent CSA-binding region provides a compelling molecular basis for designing interventions against PAM
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