Of membranes and malaria: phospholipid asymmetry in Plasmodium falciparum-infected red blood cells

Cell Mol Life Sci. 2021 May;78(10):4545-4561. doi: 10.1007/s00018-021-03799-6. Epub 2021 Mar 13.


Malaria is a vector-borne parasitic disease with a vast impact on human history, and according to the World Health Organisation, Plasmodium parasites still infect over 200 million people per year. Plasmodium falciparum, the deadliest parasite species, has a remarkable ability to undermine the host immune system and cause life-threatening disease during blood infection. The parasite's host cells, red blood cells (RBCs), generally maintain an asymmetric distribution of phospholipids in the two leaflets of the plasma membrane bilayer. Alterations to this asymmetry, particularly the exposure of phosphatidylserine (PS) in the outer leaflet, can be recognised by phagocytes. Because of the importance of innate immune defence numerous studies have investigated PS exposure in RBCs infected with P. falciparum, but have reached different conclusions. Here we review recent advancements in our understanding of the molecular mechanisms which regulate asymmetry in RBCs, and whether infection with the P. falciparum parasite results in changes to PS exposure. On the balance of evidence, it is likely that membrane asymmetry is disrupted in parasitised RBCs, though some methodological issues need addressing. We discuss the potential causes and consequences of altered asymmetry in parasitised RBCs, particularly for in vivo interactions with the immune system, and the role of host-parasite co-evolution. We also examine the potential asymmetric state of parasite membranes and summarise current knowledge on the parasite proteins, which could regulate asymmetry in these membranes. Finally, we highlight unresolved questions at this time and the need for interdisciplinary approaches to uncover the machinery which enables P. falciparum parasites to hide in mature erythrocytes.

Keywords: Annexin V; Host-Parasite Interactions; Malaria; Phosphatidylserine exposure; Plasmodium falciparum; Red blood cells.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell Membrane / metabolism*
  • Cell Membrane / parasitology*
  • Erythrocytes / metabolism*
  • Erythrocytes / parasitology
  • Host-Parasite Interactions / physiology
  • Humans
  • Immune System / metabolism
  • Immune System / parasitology
  • Malaria, Falciparum / metabolism*
  • Malaria, Falciparum / parasitology*
  • Phospholipids / metabolism*
  • Plasmodium falciparum / pathogenicity*


  • Phospholipids