Plasmodium berghei K13 Mutations Mediate In Vivo Artemisinin Resistance That Is Reversed by Proteasome Inhibition

mBio. 2020 Nov 10;11(6):e02312-20. doi: 10.1128/mBio.02312-20.


The recent emergence of Plasmodium falciparum parasite resistance to the first line antimalarial drug artemisinin is of particular concern. Artemisinin resistance is primarily driven by mutations in the P. falciparum K13 protein, which enhance survival of early ring-stage parasites treated with the artemisinin active metabolite dihydroartemisinin in vitro and associate with delayed parasite clearance in vivo However, association of K13 mutations with in vivo artemisinin resistance has been problematic due to the absence of a tractable model. Herein, we have employed CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing to engineer selected orthologous P. falciparum K13 mutations into the K13 gene of an artemisinin-sensitive Plasmodium berghei rodent model of malaria. Introduction of the orthologous P. falciparum K13 F446I, M476I, Y493H, and R539T mutations into P. berghei K13 yielded gene-edited parasites with reduced susceptibility to dihydroartemisinin in the standard 24-h in vitro assay and increased survival in an adapted in vitro ring-stage survival assay. Mutant P. berghei K13 parasites also displayed delayed clearance in vivo upon treatment with artesunate and achieved faster recrudescence upon treatment with artemisinin. Orthologous C580Y and I543T mutations could not be introduced into P. berghei, while the equivalents of the M476I and R539T mutations resulted in significant growth defects. Furthermore, a Plasmodium-selective proteasome inhibitor strongly synergized dihydroartemisinin action in these P. berghei K13 mutant lines, providing further evidence that the proteasome can be targeted to overcome artemisinin resistance. Taken together, our findings provide clear experimental evidence for the involvement of K13 polymorphisms in mediating susceptibility to artemisinins in vitro and, most importantly, under in vivo conditions.IMPORTANCE Recent successes in malaria control have been seriously threatened by the emergence of Plasmodium falciparum parasite resistance to the frontline artemisinin drugs in Southeast Asia. P. falciparum artemisinin resistance is associated with mutations in the parasite K13 protein, which associates with a delay in the time required to clear the parasites upon drug treatment. Gene editing technologies have been used to validate the role of several candidate K13 mutations in mediating P. falciparum artemisinin resistance in vitro under laboratory conditions. Nonetheless, the causal role of these mutations under in vivo conditions has been a matter of debate. Here, we have used CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing to introduce K13 mutations associated with artemisinin resistance into the related rodent-infecting parasite, Plasmodium berghei Phenotyping of these P. berghei K13 mutant parasites provides evidence of their role in mediating artemisinin resistance in vivo, which supports in vitro artemisinin resistance observations. However, we were unable to introduce some of the P. falciparum K13 mutations (C580Y and I543T) into the corresponding amino acid residues, while other introduced mutations (M476I and R539T equivalents) carried pronounced fitness costs. Our study provides evidence of a clear causal role of K13 mutations in modulating susceptibility to artemisinins in vitro and in vivo using the well-characterized P. berghei model. We also show that inhibition of the P. berghei proteasome offsets parasite resistance to artemisinins in these mutant lines.

Keywords: K13; Plasmodium berghei; Plasmodium falciparum; artemisinin resistance; gene editing; malaria; parasite clearance times; proteasome; ring-stage survival assays; synergy.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antimalarials / pharmacology*
  • Artemisinins / pharmacology*
  • Drug Resistance*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Malaria / drug therapy
  • Malaria / parasitology*
  • Mice
  • Mutation / drug effects
  • Plasmodium berghei / drug effects*
  • Plasmodium berghei / genetics*
  • Plasmodium berghei / growth & development
  • Plasmodium falciparum / genetics
  • Plasmodium falciparum / metabolism
  • Proteasome Endopeptidase Complex / genetics
  • Proteasome Endopeptidase Complex / metabolism
  • Proteasome Inhibitors / pharmacology*
  • Protozoan Proteins / genetics*
  • Protozoan Proteins / metabolism


  • Antimalarials
  • Artemisinins
  • Proteasome Inhibitors
  • Protozoan Proteins
  • artemisinin
  • Proteasome Endopeptidase Complex