Background: The carbon metabolism of the blood stages of Plasmodium falciparum, comprising rapidly dividing asexual stages and non-dividing gametocytes, is thought to be highly streamlined, with glycolysis providing most of the cellular ATP. However, these parasitic stages express all the enzymes needed for a canonical mitochondrial tricarboxylic acid (TCA) cycle, and it was recently proposed that they may catabolize glutamine via an atypical branched TCA cycle. Whether these stages catabolize glucose in the TCA cycle and what is the functional significance of mitochondrial metabolism remains unresolved.
Results: We reassessed the central carbon metabolism of P. falciparum asexual and sexual blood stages, by metabolically labeling each stage with 13C-glucose and 13C-glutamine, and analyzing isotopic enrichment in key pathways using mass spectrometry. In contrast to previous findings, we found that carbon skeletons derived from both glucose and glutamine are catabolized in a canonical oxidative TCA cycle in both the asexual and sexual blood stages. Flux of glucose carbon skeletons into the TCA cycle is low in the asexual blood stages, with glutamine providing most of the carbon skeletons, but increases dramatically in the gametocyte stages. Increased glucose catabolism in the gametocyte TCA cycle was associated with increased glucose uptake, suggesting that the energy requirements of this stage are high. Significantly, whereas chemical inhibition of the TCA cycle had little effect on the growth or viability of asexual stages, inhibition of the gametocyte TCA cycle led to arrested development and death.
Conclusions: Our metabolomics approach has allowed us to revise current models of P. falciparum carbon metabolism. In particular, we found that both asexual and sexual blood stages utilize a conventional TCA cycle to catabolize glucose and glutamine. Gametocyte differentiation is associated with a programmed remodeling of central carbon metabolism that may be required for parasite survival either before or after uptake by the mosquito vector. The increased sensitivity of gametocyte stages to TCA-cycle inhibitors provides a potential target for transmission-blocking drugs.