The composition of the erythrocyte plasma membrane is extensively modified during the intracellular growth of the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum. It has been previously shown that an 80-kD phosphoprotein is associated with the plasma membrane of human red blood cells (RBCs) infected with trophozoite/schizont stage malaria parasites. However, the identity of this 80-kD phosphoprotein is controversial. One line of evidence suggests that this protein is a phosphorylated form of RBC protein 4.1 and that it forms a tight complex with the mature parasite-infected erythrocyte surface antigen. In contrast, evidence from another group indicates that the 80-kD protein is derived from the intracellular malaria parasite. To resolve whether the 80-kD protein is indeed RBC protein 4.1, we made use of RBCs obtained from a patient with homozygous 4.1(-) negative hereditary elliptocytosis. RBCs from this patient are completely devoid of protein 4.1. We report here that this lack of protein 4.1 is correlated with the absence of phosphorylation of the 80-kD protein in parasite- infected RBCs, a finding that provides conclusive evidence that the 80- kD phosphoprotein is indeed protein 4.1. In addition, we also identify and partially characterize a casein kinase that phosphorylates protein 4.1 in P falciparum-infected human RBCs. Based on these results, we suggest that the maturation of malaria parasites in human RBCs is accompanied by the phosphorylation of protein 4.1. This phosphorylation of RBC protein 4.1 may provide a mechanism by which the intracellular malaria parasite alters the mechanical properties of the host plasma membrane and modulates parasite growth and survival in vivo.

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