Background information: The Plasmodium parasite, during its life cycle, undergoes three phases of asexual reproduction, these being repeated rounds of erythrocytic schizogony, sporogony within oocysts on the mosquito midgut wall and exo-erythrocytic schizogony within the hepatocyte. During each phase of asexual reproduction, the parasite must ensure that every new daughter cell contains an apicoplast, as this organelle cannot be formed de novo and is essential for parasite survival. To date, studies visualizing the apicoplast in live Plasmodium parasites have been restricted to the blood stages of Plasmodium falciparum.
Results: In the present study, we have generated Plasmodium berghei parasites in which GFP (green fluorescent protein) is targeted to the apicoplast using the specific targeting sequence of ACP (acyl carrier protein), which has allowed us to visualize this organelle in live Plasmodium parasites. During each phase of asexual reproduction, the apicoplast becomes highly branched, but remains as a single organelle until the completion of nuclear division, whereupon it divides and is rapidly segregated into newly forming daughter cells. We have shown that the antimicrobial agents azithromycin, clindamycin and doxycycline block development of the apicoplast during exo-erythrocytic schizogony in vitro, leading to impaired parasite maturation.
Conclusions: Using a range of powerful live microscopy techniques, we show for the first time the development of a Plasmodium organelle through the entire life cycle of the parasite. Evidence is provided that interference with the development of the Plasmodium apicoplast results in the failure to produce red-blood-cell-infective merozoites.