Antigenic variation at the infected red cell surface in malaria

Annu Rev Microbiol. 2001;55:673-707. doi: 10.1146/annurev.micro.55.1.673.


Many pathogens that either rely on an insect vector to complete their life cycle (e.g., Trypanosoma spp. and Borrelia spp.) or exist in a unique ecological niche where transmission from host to host is sporadic (e.g., Neisseria spp.) have evolved strategies to maintain infection of their mammalian hosts for long periods of time in order to ensure their survival. Because they have to survive in the face of a fully functional immune system, a common feature of many of these organisms is their development of sophisticated strategies for immune evasion. For the above organisms and for malaria parasites of the genus Plasmodium, a common theme is the ability to undergo clonal antigenic variation. In all cases, surface molecules that are important targets of the humoral immune response are encoded in the genome as multicopy, nonallelic gene families. Antigenic variation is accomplished by the successive expression of members of these gene families that show little or no immunological cross-reactivity. In the case of malaria parasites, however, some of the molecules that undergo antigenic variation are also major virulence factors, adding an additional level of complication to the host-parasite interaction. In this review, we cover the history of antigenic variation in malaria and then summarize the more recent data with particular emphasis on Plasmodium falciparum, the etiological agent of the most severe form of human malaria.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antigenic Variation*
  • Antigens, Protozoan / genetics
  • Antigens, Protozoan / immunology*
  • Erythrocytes / parasitology*
  • Host-Parasite Interactions / immunology
  • Humans
  • Malaria / immunology*
  • Malaria / parasitology
  • Malaria, Falciparum / immunology
  • Malaria, Falciparum / parasitology
  • Membrane Proteins / immunology
  • Plasmodium falciparum / immunology*
  • Virulence


  • Antigens, Protozoan
  • Membrane Proteins