The sexual blood stage of the human malaria parasite
Plasmodium falciparumundergoes remarkable biophysical changes as it prepares for transmission to mosquitoes. During maturation, midstage gametocytes show low deformability and sequester in the bone marrow and spleen cords, thus avoiding clearance during passage through splenic sinuses. Mature gametocytes exhibit increased deformability and reappear in the peripheral circulation, allowing uptake by mosquitoes. Here we define the reversible changes in erythrocyte membrane organization that underpin this biomechanical transformation. Atomic force microscopy reveals that the length of the spectrin cross-members and the size of the skeletal meshwork increase in developing gametocytes, then decrease in mature-stage gametocytes. These changes are accompanied by relocation of actin from the erythrocyte membrane to the Maurer’s clefts. Fluorescence recovery after photobleaching reveals reversible changes in the level of coupling between the membrane skeleton and the plasma membrane. Treatment of midstage gametocytes with cytochalasin D decreases the vertical coupling and increases their filterability. A computationally efficient coarse-grained model of the erythrocyte membrane reveals that restructuring and constraining the spectrin meshwork can fully account for the observed changes in deformability.