Malaria is a vector-borne parasitic disease with a vast impact on human history, and according to the World Health Organisation, Plasmodium parasites still infect over 200 million people per year. Plasmodium falciparum, the deadliest parasite species, has a remarkable ability to undermine the host immune system and cause life-threatening disease during blood infection. The parasite's host cells, red blood cells (RBCs), generally maintain an asymmetric distribution of phospholipids in the two leaflets of the plasma membrane bilayer.
The human malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum relies on lipids to survive; this makes its lipid metabolism an attractive drug target. The lipid phosphatidylserine (PS) is usually confined to the inner leaflet of the red blood cell membrane (RBC) bilayer; however, some studies suggest that infection with the intracellular parasite results in the presence of this lipid in the RBC membrane outer leaflet, where it could act as a recognition signal to phagocytes. Here, we used fluorescent lipid analogues and probes to investigate the enzymatic reactions responsible for maintaining asymmetry between membrane leaflets, and found that in parasitised RBCs the maintenance of membrane asymmetry was partly disrupted, and PS was increased in the outer leaflet.