The asexual erythrocytic stage of the malarial parasite ingests and degrades the hemoglobin of its host red cell. To study this process, we labeled the cytoplasm of uninfected red cells with fluorescein-dextran, infected those cells with trophozoite- and schizont-rich cultures of Plasmodium falciparum, and harvested them 110-120 h later in the trophozoite stage. After lysis of the red cell cytoplasm with digitonin, the only fluorescence remaining was in small (0.5-0.9 micron) vesicles similar to the parasite's food vacuole. As measured by spectrofluorimetry, the pH of these vesicles was acid (initial pH 5.2-5.4), and they responded to MgATP with acidification and to weak bases such as NH4Cl with alkalinization. These three properties are similar to those obtained with human fibroblasts and suggest that the endocytic vesicles of plasmodia are similar to those of mammalian cells. Each of the antimalarials tested (chloroquine, quinine, and mefloquine) as well as NH4Cl inhibited parasite growth at concentrations virtually identical to those that increased parasite vesicle pH. These results suggest two conclusions: (a) The increases in vesicle pH that we have observed in our digitonin-treated parasite preparation occur at similar concentrations of weak bases and antimalarials in cultures of parasitized erythrocytes, and (b) P. falciparum parasites are exquisitely dependent on vesicle pH during their asexual erythrocytic cycle, perhaps for processes analogous to endocytosis and proteolysis in mammalian cells, and that antimalarials and NH4Cl may act by interfering with these events.

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