An atypical mitogen-activated protein kinase controls cytokinesis and flagellar motility during male gamete formation in a malaria parasite.
The transmission of malaria parasites to the mosquito depends critically on the rapid initiation of sexual reproduction in response to triggers from the mosquito midgut environment. We here identify an essential function for an atypical mitogen-activated protein kinase of the rodent malaria parasite Plasmodium berghei, Pbmap-2, in male sexual differentiation and parasite transmission to the mosquito. A deletion mutant no longer expressing the Pbmap-2 protein develops as wild type throughout the asexual erythrocytic phase of the life cycle. Gametocytes, the sexual transmission stages, form normally and respond in vitro to the appropriate environmental cues by rounding up and emerging from their host cells. However, microgametocytes fail to release flagellated microgametes. Female development is not affected, as judged by the ability of macrogametes to become cross-fertilized by microgametes from a donor strain. Cellular differentiation of Pbmap-2 KO microgametocytes is blocked at a late stage of male gamete formation, after replication and mitoses have been completed and axonemes have been assembled. These data demonstrate a function for Pbmap-2 in initiating cytokinesis and axoneme motility, possibly downstream of a cell cycle checkpoint for the completion of replication and/or mitosis, which are extraordinarily rapid in the male gametocyte.