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The malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum has been discovered to alter the sodium ion concentration of cells it infects as a means to help it steal nutrients, according to a study led by Kiaran Kirk and Stefan Bröer of Australian National University, Canberra (Nature, DOI: 10.1038/nature05149). It had been known that P. falciparum increases Na+ concentration inside red blood cells of its host, but the reason for the increase was a biochemical mystery. The researchers determined that the parasite has a Na+-dependent transporter protein at its surface that uses Na+ to fuel the uptake of the inorganic phosphate (H2PO4-) it needs for cell metabolism and nucleic acid production in order to proliferate. The parasite thus "engineers" a high Na+ concentration in its host cell while keeping its own Na+ concentration low, thereby creating a concentration gradient to drive the phosphate uptake transporter.
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