Positive selection on the Plasmodium falciparum sporozoite threonine-asparagine-rich protein: analysis of isolates mainly from low endemic areas.
ABSTRACT The sporozoite threonine-asparagine-rich protein (STARP) of Plasmodium falciparum is an attractive target for a pre-erythrocytic stage malaria vaccine because both naturally acquired and experimentally induced anti-STARP antibodies can block sporozoite invasion of hepatocytes. To explore the extent of sequence variation, we surveyed nucleotide polymorphism across the entire gene, encompassing 2 exons and an intron, of 124 P. falciparum-infected blood samples from Thailand and 10 from 4 other endemic areas. In total 24 haplotypes were identified despite low-level nucleotide diversity at this locus. The mean number of nonsynonymous substitutions per nonsynonymous site (d(N)) significantly exceeded that of synonymous substitutions per synonymous site (d(S)), suggesting that the STARP gene has evolved under positive selection, probably from host immune pressure. The preponderance of conservative amino acid exchanges and a strongly biased T-nucleotide toward the third position of codons in repeat arrays have reflected simultaneous constraints on this molecule, probably from its respective unknown function and nucleotide composition. Sequence conservation in the STARP locus among clinical isolates from different disease endemic areas would not compromise vaccine incorporation.