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Scientists characterize protein essential to survival of malaria parasite

A biology lab at Washington University has just cracked the structure and function of a protein that plays a key role in the life of a parasite that killed 655,000 people in 2010.

The protein is an enzyme that Plasmodium falciparum, the protozoan that causes the most lethal form of malaria, uses to make cell membrane.

The protozoan cannot survive without this enzyme, but even though the enzyme has many lookalikes in other organisms, people do not make it. Together these characteristics make the enzyme an ideal target for new antimalarial drugs.

The research was published in the January 6 issue of the Journal of Biological Chemistry (JBC) as "Paper of the Week" for that issue.

The work also will be featured in ASBMB Today (the newsletter of the American Society for Biological Molecular Biology, which publishes JBC), and it will be the topic of a JBC podcast.

Sweating the cold room

The protein's structure might have remained an enigma, had it not been the "unreasonable optimism" of Joseph Jez, PhD, associate professor of biology in Arts & Sciences, which carried his team through a six-year-long obstacle course of failures and setbacks.

"What my lab does is crystallize proteins so that we can see what they look like in three dimensions," Jez says. "The idea is that if we know a protein's structure, it will be easier to design chemicals that would target the protein's active site and shut it down," Jez says.

The lastest discovery is the culmination of a project that began years before when Jez was working at the Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis and collaborating with scientists at the local biotech startup Divergence.

"At the time, C. elegans had just been sequenced and the Divergence scientists were looking at using it as an easy model to work out the biochemistry of parasitic nematodes," Jez says.

C. elegans is a free-living

Contact: Diana Lutz
Washington University in St. Louis

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