Extrachromosomal DNA amplicons in antimalarial-resistant Plasmodium falciparum

Mol Microbiol. 2021 Apr;115(4):574-590. doi: 10.1111/mmi.14624. Epub 2020 Nov 19.


Extrachromosomal (ec) DNAs are genetic elements that exist separately from the genome. Since ecDNA can carry beneficial genes, they are a powerful adaptive mechanism in cancers and many pathogens. For the first time, we report ecDNA contributing to antimalarial resistance in Plasmodium falciparum, the most virulent human malaria parasite. Using pulse field gel electrophoresis combined with PCR-based copy number analysis, we detected two ecDNA elements that differ in migration and structure. Entrapment in the electrophoresis well and low susceptibility to exonucleases revealed that the biologically relevant ecDNA element is large and complex in structure. Using deep sequencing, we show that ecDNA originates from the chromosome and expansion of an ecDNA-specific sequence may improve its segregation or expression. We speculate that ecDNA is maintained using established mechanisms due to shared characteristics with the mitochondrial genome. Implications of ecDNA discovery in this organism are wide-reaching due to the potential for new strategies to target resistance development.

Keywords: Plasmodium; adaptation; extrachromosomal DNA; genome; malaria; resistance.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological
  • Antimalarials / pharmacology
  • DNA, Protozoan
  • Drug Resistance / genetics*
  • Gene Amplification
  • Genome, Protozoan*
  • Humans
  • Malaria, Falciparum / parasitology*
  • Malaria, Falciparum / prevention & control*
  • Plasmodium falciparum / drug effects*
  • Plasmodium falciparum / genetics*
  • Pyrimidines / pharmacology


  • Antimalarials
  • DNA, Protozoan
  • Pyrimidines