The nature of the surface deformations of erythrocytes infected with the human malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum was analyzed using scanning electron microscopy at two stages of the 48-h parasite maturation cycle. Infected cells bearing trophozoite-stage parasites (24-36 h) had small protrusions (knobs), with diameters varying from 160 to 110 nm, and a density ranging from 10 to 35 knobs X micron-2. When parasites were fully mature (schizont stage, 40-44 h), knob size decreased (100-70 nm), whereas density increased (45-70 knobs X micron-2). Size and density of the knobs varied inversely, suggesting that knob production (a) occurred throughout intraerythrocytic parasite development from trophozoite to schizont and (b) was related to dynamic changes of the erythrocyte membrane. Variation in the distribution of the knobs over the red cell surface was observed during parasite maturation. At the early trophozoite stage of parasite development, knobs appeared to be formed in particular domains of the cell surface. As the density of knobs increased and they covered the entire cell surface, their lateral distribution was dispersive (more-than-random); this was particularly evident at the schizont stage. Regional surface patterns of knobs (rows, circles) were seen throughout parasite development. The nature of the dynamic changes that occurred at the red cell surface during knob formation, as well as the nonrandom distribution of knobs, suggested that the red cell cytoskeleton may have played a key role in knob formation and patterning.

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