Plasmodium falciparum is an intracellular parasite of human red blood cells (RBCs). Like many other intracellular parasites, P. falciparum resides and develops within a parasitophorous vacuole which is bound by a membrane that separates the host cell cytoplasm from the parasite surface. Some parasite proteins are secreted into the vacuolar space and others are secreted, by an as yet poorly defined pathway, into the RBC cytosol. The transport of proteins from the parasite has been followed mainly using morphological methods. In search of an experimental system that would allow (i) dissection of the individual steps involved in transport from the parasite surface into the RBC cytosol, and (ii) an assessment of the molecular requirements for this process at the erythrocytic side of the vacuolar membrane, we have permeabilized infected RBCs with the pore-forming protein streptolysin O using conditions which left the vacuole intact. The distribution of two parasite proteins which served as markers for the vacuolar space and the RBC cytosol respectively was analysed morphologically and biochemically. In permeabilized RBCs the two marker proteins were sorted to the same compartments as in intact RBCs. The protein which was destined for the RBC cytosol traversed the vacuolar space before it was translocated across the vacuolar membrane. Protein transport could be arrested in the vacuole by removing the RBC cytosol. Translocation across the vacuolar membrane required ATP and a protein source at the erythrocytic face of the membrane, but it was independent of the intracellular ionic milieu of the RBC.

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