Atypical molecular basis for drug resistance to mitochondrial function inhibitors in plasmodium falciparum

Heather J. Painter, Joanne M. Morrisey, Michael W. Mather, Lindsey M. Orchard, Cuyler Luck, Martin J. Smilkstein, Michael K. Riscoe, Akhil B. Vaidya, Manuel Llinás

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


The continued emergence of drug-resistant Plasmodium falciparum parasites hinders global attempts to eradicate malaria, emphasizing the need to identify new antimalarial drugs. Attractive targets for chemotherapeutic intervention are the cytochrome (cyt) bc1 complex, which is an essential component of the mitochondrial electron transport chain (mtETC) required for ubiquinone recycling and mitochondrially localized dihydroorotate dehydrogenase (DHODH) critical for de novo pyrimidine synthesis. Despite the essentiality of this complex, resistance to a novel acridone class of compounds targeting cyt bc1 was readily attained, resulting in a parasite strain (SB1-A6) that was panresistant to both mtETC and DHODH inhibitors. Here, we describe the molecular mechanism behind the resistance of the SB1-A6 parasite line, which lacks the common cyt bc1 point mutations characteristic of resistance to mtETC inhibitors. Using Illumina whole-genome sequencing, we have identified both a copy number variation (∼2×) and a single-nucleotide polymorphism (C276F) associated with pfdhodh in SB1-A6. We have characterized the role of both genetic lesions by mimicking the copy number variation via episomal expression of pfdhodh and introducing the identified single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) using CRISPR-Cas9 and assessed their contributions to drug resistance. Although both of these genetic polymorphisms have been previously identified as contributing to both DSM-1 and atovaquone resistance, SB1-A6 represents a unique genotype in which both alterations are present in a single line, suggesting that the combination contributes to the panresistant phenotype. This novel mechanism of resistance to mtETC inhibition has critical implications for the development of future drugs targeting the bc1 complex or de novo pyrimidine synthesis that could help guide future antimalarial combination therapies and reduce the rapid development of drug resistance in the field.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere02143-20
JournalAntimicrobial agents and chemotherapy
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 2021
Externally publishedYes


  • Antimalarial agents
  • Drug resistance
  • Malaria
  • Metabolism
  • Plasmodium
  • Plasmodium falciparum

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pharmacology
  • Pharmacology (medical)
  • Infectious Diseases


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