Background: Encoded by the var gene family, highly variable Plasmodium falciparum erythrocyte membrane protein-1 (PfEMP1) proteins mediate tissue-specific cytoadherence of infected erythrocytes, resulting in immune evasion and severe malaria disease. Sequencing and assembling the 40-60 var gene complement for individual infections has been notoriously difficult, impeding molecular epidemiological studies and the assessment of particular var elements as subunit vaccine candidates.
Methods: We developed and validated a novel algorithm, Exon-Targeted Hybrid Assembly (ETHA), to perform targeted assembly of var gene sequences, based on a combination of Pacific Biosciences and Illumina data.
Results: Using ETHA, we characterized the repertoire of var genes in 12 samples from uncomplicated malaria infections in children from a single Malian village and showed them to be as genetically diverse as vars from isolates from around the globe. The gene var2csa, a member of the var family associated with placental malaria pathogenesis, was present in each genome, as were vars previously associated with severe malaria.
Conclusion: ETHA, a tool to discover novel var sequences from clinical samples, will aid the understanding of malaria pathogenesis and inform the design of malaria vaccines based on PfEMP1. ETHA is available at: https://sourceforge.net/projects/etha/ .
Keywords: ETHA; Malaria; Mali; PfEMP1; Plasmodium falciparum; Plasmodium falciparum erythrocyte membrane protein-1; var; var2csa.