Background: Plasmodium falciparum parasitization of erythrocytes causes a substantial increase in the levels of intracellular fatty acids, notably oleic acid. How parasites acquire this monounsaturated fatty acid has remained enigmatic. Here, we report on the biochemical and enzymatic characterization of stearoyl-CoA desaturase (SCD) in P. falciparum.
Methodology/principal findings: Metabolic labeling experiments allowed us to demonstrate the production of oleic acid from stearic acid both in lysates of parasites incubated with [(14)C]-stearoyl-CoA and in parasite-infected erythrocytes labeled with [(14)C]-stearic acid. Optimal SCD activity was detected in schizonts, the stage of maximal membrane synthesis. This activity correlated with a late trophozoite stage-specific induction of PFE0555w transcripts. PFE0555w harbors a typical SCD signature. Similar to mammalian SCDs, this protein was found to be associated with the endoplasmic reticulum, as determined with PFE0555w-GFP tagged transgenic P. falciparum. Importantly, these parasites exhibited increased rates of stearic to oleic acid conversion, providing additional evidence that PFE0555w encodes the plasmodial SCD (PfSCD). These findings prompted us to assess the activity of sterculic acid analogues, known to be specific Delta9-desaturase inhibitors. Methyl sterculate inhibited the synthesis of oleic acid both with parasite lysates and infected erythrocytes, most likely by targeting PfSCD. This compound exhibited significant, rapid and irreversible antimalarial activity against asexual blood stages. This parasiticidal effect was antagonized by oleic acid.
Conclusion/significance: Our study provides evidence that parasite-mediated fatty acid modification is important for blood-stage survival and provides a new strategy to develop a novel antimalarial therapeutic based on the inhibition of PfSCD.