In vitro efficacy, resistance selection, and structural modeling studies implicate the malarial parasite apicoplast as the target of azithromycin.
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Azithromycin (AZ), a broad-spectrum antibacterial macrolide that inhibits protein synthesis, also manifests reasonable efficacy as an antimalarial. Its mode of action against malarial parasites, however, has remained undefined. Our in vitro investigations with the human malarial parasite Plasmodium falciparum document a remarkable increase in AZ potency when exposure is prolonged from one to two generations of intraerythrocytic growth, with AZ producing 50% inhibition of parasite growth at concentrations in the mid to low nanomolar range. In our culture-adapted lines, AZ displayed no synergy with chloroquine (CQ), amodiaquine, or artesunate. AZ activity was also unaffected by mutations in the pfcrt (P. falciparum chloroquine resistance transporter) or pfmdr1 (P. falciparum multidrug resistance-1) drug resistance loci, as determined using transgenic lines. We have selected mutant, AZ-resistant 7G8 and Dd2 parasite lines. In the AZ-resistant 7G8 line, the bacterial-like apicoplast large subunit ribosomal RNA harbored a U438C mutation in domain I. Both AZ-resistant lines revealed a G76V mutation in a conserved region of the apicoplast-encoded P. falciparum ribosomal protein L4 (PfRpl4). This protein is predicted to associate with the nuclear genome-encoded P. falciparum ribosomal protein L22 (PfRpl22) and the large subunit rRNA to form the 50 S ribosome polypeptide exit tunnel that can be occupied by AZ. The PfRpl22 sequence remained unchanged. Molecular modeling of mutant PfRpl4 with AZ suggests an altered orientation of the L75 side chain that could preclude AZ binding. These data imply that AZ acts on the apicoplast bacterial-like translation machinery and identify Pfrpl4 as a potential marker of resistance.