During its intra-erythrocytic development Plasmodium falciparum establishes a membrane network beyond its own limiting membrane in the cytoplasm of its host. These membrane structures play an important role in the trafficking of virulence proteins to the erythrocyte surface, however their ultrastructure is only partly defined and there is on-going debate regarding their origin, organisation and connectivity. We have used two whole cell imaging modalities to explore the topography of parasitised erythrocytes. Three-dimensional structured illumination microscopy provides resolution beyond the optical diffraction limit and permits analysis of fluorescently labelled whole cells. Immunoelectron tomography offers the possibility of high resolution imaging of individual ultrastructural features in a cellular context. Combined with serial sectioning and immunogold labelling, this technique permits precise mapping of whole cell architecture. We show that the P. falciparum exported secretory system comprises a series of modular units, comprising flattened cisternae, known as Maurer's clefts, tubular connecting elements, two different vesicle populations and electron-dense structures that have fused with the erythrocyte membrane. The membrane network is not continuous, pointing to an important role for vesicle-mediated transport in the delivery of cargo to different destinations in the host cell.
Copyright 2009 Australian Society for Parasitology Inc. Published by Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.