Cytoadhesion of Plasmodium falciparum–infected erythrocytes to chondroitin-4-sulfate is cooperative and shear enhanced

Harden Rieger, Hiroshi Y. Yoshikawa, Katharina Quadt, Morten A. Nielsen, Cecilia P. Sanchez, Ali Salanti, Motomu Tanaka and Michael Lanzer

Key Points

  • Cytoadhesion of parasitized erythrocytes depends on the intermolecular distance between neighboring chondroitin-4-sulfate molecules.

  • VAR2CSA is an allosteric adhesin that binds chondroitin-4-sulfate in a cooperative and shear stress–induced manner.


Infections with the human malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum during pregnancy can lead to severe complications for both mother and child, resulting from the cytoadhesion of parasitized erythrocytes in the intervillous space of the placenta. Cytoadherence is conferred by the specific interaction of the parasite-encoded adhesin VAR2CSA with chondroitin-4-sulfate (CSA) present on placental proteoglycans. CSA presented elsewhere in the microvasculature does not afford VAR2CSA-mediated cytoadhesion of parasitized erythrocytes. To address the placenta-specific binding tropism, we investigated the effect of the receptor/ligand arrangement on cytoadhesion, using artificial membranes with different CSA spacing intervals. We found that cytoadhesion is strongly dependent on the CSA distance, with half-maximal adhesion occurring at a CSA distance of 9 ± 1 nm at all hydrodynamic conditions. Moreover, binding to CSA was cooperative and shear stress induced. These findings suggest that the CSA density, together with allosteric effects in VAR2CSA, aid in discriminating between different CSA milieus.

  • Submitted March 6, 2014.
  • Accepted October 20, 2014.
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