Asexually replicating populations of Plasmodium parasites, including those from cloned lines, generate both male and female gametes to complete the malaria life cycle through the mosquito. The generation of these sexual forms begins with the induction of gametocytes from haploid asexual stage parasites in the blood of the vertebrate host. The molecular processes that govern the differentiation and development of the sexual forms are largely unknown. Here we describe a defect that affects the development of competent male gametocytes from a mutant clone of P. falciparum (Dd2). Comparison of the Dd2 clone to the predecessor clone from which it was derived (W2'82) shows that the defect is a mutation that arose during the long-term cultivation of asexual stages in vitro. Light and electron microscopic images, and indirect immunofluorescence assays with male-specific anti-alpha-tubulin II antibodies, indicate a global disruption of male development at the gametocyte level with at least a 70-90% reduction in the proportion of mature male gametocytes by the Dd2 clone relative to W2'82. A high prevalence of abnormal gametocyte forms, frequently containing multiple and unusually large vacuoles, is associated with the defect. The reduced production of mature male gametocytes may reflect a problem in processes that commit a gametocyte to male development or a progressive attrition of viable male gametocytes during maturation. The defect is genetically linked to an almost complete absence of male gamete production and of infectivity to mosquitoes. This is the first sex-specific developmental mutation identified and characterized in Plasmodium.

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