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De novo transcriptome assembly and preliminary analyses of two avian malaria parasites, Plasmodium delichoni and Plasmodium homocircumflexum

Weinberg, Joshua, Field, Jasper Toscani, Ilgūnas, Mikas, Bukauskaitė, Dovilė, Iezhova, Tatjana, Valkiūnas, Gediminas, Sehgal, Ravinder N.M.
Genomics 2018
Carduelis, Plasmodium, Primates, RNA, avian malaria, bioinformatics, birds, erythrocytes, evolution, genes, hosts, merozoites, mortality, parasites, pathogens, reptiles, sequence analysis, surface proteins, transcriptome, vaccines, virulence
Parasites of the genus Plasmodium infect a wide array of hosts, causing malaria in all major groups of terrestrial vertebrates including primates, reptiles, and birds. Molecular mechanisms explaining why some Plasmodium species are virulent, while other closely related malaria pathogens are relatively benign in the same hosts, remain unclear. Here, we present the RNA sequencing and subsequent transcriptome assembly of two avian Plasmodium parasites which can eventually be used to better understand the genetic mechanisms underlying Plasmodium species pathogenicity in an avian host. Plasmodium homocircumflexum, a cryptic, pathogenic species that often causes mortality and Plasmodium delichoni, a newly described, relatively benign malaria parasite that does not kill its hosts, were used to experimentally infect two Eurasian siskins (Carduelis spinus). RNA extractions were performed and RNA sequencing was completed using high throughput Illumina sequencing. Using established bioinformatics pipelines, the sequencing data from both species were used to generate transcriptomes using published Plasmodium species genomes as a scaffold. The finalized transcriptome of P. homocircumflexum contained 21,612 total contigs while that of P. delichoni contained 12,048 contigs. We were able to identify many genes implicated in erythrocyte invasion actively expressed in both P. homocircumflexum and P. delichoni, including the well described vaccine candidates Apical Membrane Antigen-1 (AMA-1) and Merozoite Surface Protein 1 (MSP1). This work acts as a stepping stone to increase available data on avian Plasmodium parasites, thus enabling future research into the evolution of pathogenicity in malaria.