Single-cell analysis reveals distinct gene expression and heterogeneity in male and female Plasmodium falciparum gametocytes

Katelyn A. Walzer, Danielle M. Kubicki, Xiaohu Tang, Jen Tsan Ashley Chi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

28 Scopus citations


Sexual reproduction is an obligate step in the Plasmodium falciparum life cycle, with mature gametocytes being the only form of the parasite capable of human-to-mosquito transmission. Development of male and female gametocytes takes 9 to 12 days, and although more than 300 genes are thought to be specific to gametocytes, only a few have been postulated to be male or female specific. Because these genes are often expressed during late gametocyte stages and for some, male- or female-specific transcript expression is debated, the separation of male and female populations is technically challenging. To overcome these challenges, we have developed an unbiased single-cell approach to determine which transcripts are expressed in male versus female gametocytes. Using microfluidic technology, we isolated single mid- to late-stage gametocytes to compare the expression of 91 genes, including 87 gametocyte-specific genes, in 90 cells. Such analysis identified distinct gene clusters whose expression was associated with male, female, or all gametocytes. In addition, a small number of male gametocytes clustered separately from female gametocytes based on sex-specific expression independent of stage. Many female-enriched genes also exhibited stage-specific expression. RNA fluorescent in situ hybridization of male and female markers validated the mutually exclusive expression pattern of male and female transcripts in gametocytes. These analyses uncovered novel male and female markers that are expressed as early as stage III gametocytogenesis, providing further insight into Plasmodium sex-specific differentiation previously masked in population analyses. Our single-cell approach reveals the most robust markers for sex-specific differentiation in Plasmodium gametocytes. Such single-cell expression assays can be generalized to all eukaryotic pathogens.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere00130-18
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 1 2018


  • Gene expression
  • Plasmodium falciparum
  • Sexual development
  • Single cell


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