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Transcriptome assembly and differential gene expression of the invasive avian malaria parasite Plasmodium relictum in Hawaiʻi

March 27, 2021

The malaria parasite Plasmodium relictum (lineage GRW4) was introduced less than a century ago to the native avifauna of Hawaiʻi, where it has since caused major declines of endemic bird populations. One of the native bird species that is frequently infected with GRW4 is the Hawaiʻi ʻamakihi (Chlorodrepanis virens). To achieve a better understanding of the transcriptional activities of this virulent parasite, we performed a controlled challenge experiment of 15 ʻamakihi that were infected with GRW4. Blood samples containing malaria parasites were collected at two time points (intermediate and peak infection stages) from host individuals that were either experimentally infected by mosquitoes or inoculated with infected blood. We then used RNA sequencing to assemble a high‐quality blood transcriptome of P. relictum GRW4, allowing us to quantify parasite expression levels inside individual birds. We found few significant differences (one to two transcripts) in GRW4 expression levels between host infection stages and between inoculation methods. However, 36 transcripts showed differential expression levels among all host individuals, indicating a potential presence of host‐specific gene regulation across hosts. To reduce the extinction risk of the remaining native bird species in Hawaiʻi, genetic resources of the local Plasmodium lineage are needed to enable further molecular characterization of this parasite. Our newly built Hawaiian GRW4 transcriptome assembly, together with analyses of the parasite's transcriptional activities inside the blood of Hawaiʻi ʻamakihi, can provide us with important knowledge on how to combat this deadly avian disease in the future.