Laser optical tweezers reveal how malaria parasites infect red blood cells (w/ Video)

August 19, 2014
Credit: CDC

Malaria is a life-threatening disease caused by a parasite that invades one red blood cell after another. Little is known about this infection process because it happens so quickly, potentially explaining why there is currently no approved malaria vaccine. In a study published by Cell Press August 19th in the Biophysical Journal, researchers used a tool called laser optical tweezers to study interactions between the disease-causing parasite and red blood cells. The findings reveal surprising new insights into malaria biology and pave the way for the development of more effective drugs or vaccines for a disease that affects hundreds of millions of people around the world.

"Using to study red blood cell invasion gives us an unprecedented level of control over the whole process and will help us to understand this critical process at a level of detail that has not been possible before," says senior study author Julian Rayner of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute.

The malaria-causing parasite, Plasmodium falciparum, usually leaves one red blood cell and invades another in less than one minute and loses the ability to infect host cells within two or three minutes of release. To study this transient event, Rayner and senior study author Pietro Cicuta of the University of Cambridge used laser because this instrument allows for precise control over the movements of cells by exerting extremely small forces with a highly focused laser beam. The researchers used optical tweezers to pick up individual parasites that had just emerged from a red blood cell and deliver them to another red blood cell, demonstrating that the technique is suitable for studying the invasion process.

Rayner and Cicuta also used optical tweezers to measure how strongly the parasites adhere to . They discovered that attachment is probably mediated by multiple weak interactions, which could potentially be blocked by a combination of drugs or antibodies. Moreover, the team used the technique to shed light on how three different invasion-inhibiting drugs affect interactions between the parasites and red blood cells.

The video will load shortly
This video shows the forcible detachment of an adherent merozoite from the erythrocyte surface via optical tweezers. Credit: Biophysical Journal, Crick et al.

The video will load shortly
This video shows local erythrocyte membrane deformations induced by tweezer-manipulation of post-viable merozoite contact area. Credit: Biophysical Journal, Crick et al.
The video will load shortly
This video shows the delivery of a viable merozoite via optical tweezers to a healthy erythrocyte and subsequent invasion. Credit: Biophysical Journal, Crick et al.
Taken together, the findings show that optical tweezers are a powerful tool for studying malaria biology and drug mechanisms at the single-cell level. "We now plan to apply this technology to dissect the process of invasion and understand what genes and proteins function at what step," Rayner says. "This will allow us to design better inhibitors or vaccines that block invasion by targeting multiple steps at the same time."

Explore further: Malaria parasite requires a single receptor to invade human red blood cells

More information: Biophysical Journal, Crick et al.: "Quantitation of malaria parasite-erythrocyte cell-cell interactions using optical tweezers." dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bpj.2014.07.010

Related Stories

New malaria vaccine candidates identified

July 30, 2014

Researchers have discovered new vaccine targets that could help in the battle against malaria. Taking a new, large-scale approach to this search, researchers tested a library of proteins from the Plasmodium falciparum parasite ...

Recommended for you

Force triggers gene expression by stretching chromatin

August 26, 2016

How genes in our DNA are expressed into traits within a cell is a complicated mystery with many players, the main suspects being chemical. However, a new study by University of Illinois researchers and collaborators in China ...

New method developed for producing some metals

August 25, 2016

The MIT researchers were trying to develop a new battery, but it didn't work out that way. Instead, thanks to an unexpected finding in their lab tests, what they discovered was a whole new way of producing the metal antimony—and ...

New electrical energy storage material shows its power

August 24, 2016

A powerful new material developed by Northwestern University chemist William Dichtel and his research team could one day speed up the charging process of electric cars and help increase their driving range.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.