The course of infection of Plasmodium fragile in its natural host, the toque monkey Macaca sinica, consists of a primary peak of parasitemia followed by several distinct, successive peaks of lower parasitemia. In the S+ host, the late intraerythrocytic asexual developmental stages of P. fragile induce the expression of antigens on the surface of infected erythrocytes, which could be detected using the technique of surface immunofluorescence. Immunofluorescence using unfixed erythrocytes in suspension has shown that antigens are recognized by immune serum on the surface of the erythrocytes infected with more mature stages of the parasite. These antigens undergo variation, each successive peak of parasitemia being characterized by a different variant antigenic type (VAT). The appearance of the successive VATs occurs in a sequential manner, following the same order in different sets of animals. This constitutes the first example of a sequential expression of antigens in a malaria parasite; it indicates that, in P. fragile, antigenic variation is not the result of random mutations selected by antibody. Parasite-induced antigens on the surface of infected erythrocytes could not be detected in the S- host. However, when nonexpressing parasites from the S- host were transferred by blood passage into a naive S+ animal, they began to express antigens on the surface of infected erythrocytes within two erythrocytic cycles. We have demonstrated that the ability of S- parasites to switch to a particular VAT when passaged into a S+ animal changes during the course of an infection in the S- animal, indicating that, although surface antigens are not expressed, the processes leading to antigenic variation occurs even in the S- host. Antibodies directed against these surface antigens inhibit the growth of intra-erythrocytic parasites. The growth inhibition effects of antibodies are also variant specific, indicating that these variant surface antigens are functionally important for parasite survival.

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