Sexual reproduction of Plasmodium parasites takes place in anopheline mosquitoes, where male and female gametes fuse to form zygotes and then ookinetes. These processes are orchestrated by stage-specific protein expression, which is mediated in part by translational repression. Accumulating evidence shows that RNA binding proteins (RBPs) play crucial roles in these processes. Here, we report the characterization of P. berghei 103 (Pb103), which encodes a protein possessing double zinc finger domains (ZFs), an RBP. Reporter parasites expressing azami green fluorescent protein (AGFP) under the endogenous Pb103 gene promoter (Pb103-AGFP reporter) showed that the AGFP fluorescent signal was detected from gametes to ookinetes, while AGFP mRNA was translationally repressed in female gametocytes. The Pb103-disrupted parasites (Pb103(-)) grew and produced gametocytes with similar efficiencies to those of wild-type parasites. However, no oocysts were formed in mosquitoes fed Pb103(-). An in vitro fertilization assay showed abortion at the zygote stage in Pb103(-), suggesting that Pb103 plays a critical role in zygote/ookinete development. Cross-fertilization assays with Pb103(-) and male- or female-sterile parasites revealed that Pb103 was essential exclusively for female gametes. To identify the domains critical for zygote/ookinete development, transgenic parasites expressing partially deleted Pb103 were generated and assayed for ookinete maturation. As a result, deleting either of two ZFs but not the C-terminal region abolished zygote/ookinete development, highlighting the indispensable roles of ZFs in parasite sexual development, most likely via translational repression.
Keywords: Plasmodium berghei; RNA binding protein; translational repression; zinc finger.