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Structural insights into chondroitin sulphate A binding Duffy-binding-like domains from Plasmodium falciparum: implications for intervention strategies against placental malaria

Jasmita Gill1, Chetan E Chitnis2 and Amit Sharma1*

Author Affiliations

1 Structural and Computational Biology Group, International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB), Aruna Asaf Ali Road, New Delhi, 110067, India

2 Malaria Research Group, International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB), Aruna Asaf Ali Road, New Delhi, 110067, India

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Malaria Journal 2009, 8:67  doi:10.1186/1475-2875-8-67

Published: 17 April 2009



Placental malaria is typified by selective clustering of Plasmodium falciparum in the intervillous blood spaces of the placenta. Sequestration of malaria parasite in the human placenta is mediated by interactions between chondroitin sulphate A (CSA) on the syncytiotrophoblasts and proteins expressed on the surface of infected human erythrocytes. Plasmodium falciparum Erythrocyte Membrane Protein 1 (PfEMP1) encoded by the var2CSA gene is believed to be the main parasite ligand for CSA-mediated placental binding.


Extensive sequence and structure comparisons of the various CSA-binding and non-binding DBL domains from the var2CSA gene from A4 and 3D7 strains of P. falciparum were performed. Three-dimensional structural models of various DBL domains were built and analysed with a view to assessing conservation of CSA interaction sites across various DBL domains.


Each of the six DBL domains from var2CSA are likely to retain the disulfide linkages evident from previously published DBL domain crystal structures. The number of disulfide linkages between the various DBL domains analysed varies from three to seven, of which two are conserved across all DBL domains. The conserved disulfide linkages are distributed within the respective three sub-domains and only one linkage is shared by sub-domains I and II. Major differences between CSA-binding DBL domains are in the loop regions, which tie the alpha helices together, and in variable length terminal extensions. Intriguingly, a crucial loop from A4 DBL 3X which provides the important Gly and Lys residues that chelate the bound sulphate is missing or significantly altered in all other DBL domains that interact with CSA. Further analysis of the proposed sulphate and predicted CSA-binding site indicates either none or very low level of conservation among the critical interacting residues.


Structural comparisons of the three-dimensional structures of CSA-binding DBL domains indicates that the proposed CSA interaction site on A4 DBL 3X is unlikely to be conserved across the other CSA-binding DBL domains from var2CSA. Therefore, the 4 CSA-binding DBL domains encoded by var2CSA are unlikely to have common architectures to their CSA recognition sites. These structural insights have clear implications in using CSA-binding DBL domains for vaccines against placental malaria as it is proposed that the various CSA-binding DBL domains on var2CSA will recognize their CSA ligands differently.