Sexual differentiation and parasite transmission are intimately linked in the life cycle of malaria parasites. The specialized cells providing this crucial link are the Plasmodium gametocytes. These are formed in the vertebrate host and are programmed to mature into gametes emerging from the erythrocytes in the midgut of a blood-feeding mosquito. The ensuing fusion into a zygote establishes parasite infection in the insect vector. Although key mechanisms of gametogenesis and fertilization are becoming progressively clear, the fundamental biology of gametocyte formation still presents open questions, some of which are specific to the human malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum. Developmental commitment to sexual differentiation, regulation of stage-specific gene expression, the profound molecular and cellular changes accompanying gametocyte specialization, the requirement for tissue-specific sequestration in P. falciparum gametocytogenesis are proposed here as areas for future investigation. The epidemiological relevance of parasite transmission from humans to mosquito in the spread of malaria and of Plasmodium drug resistance genes indicates that understanding molecular mechanisms of gametocyte formation is highly relevant to design strategies able to interfere with the transmission of this disease.
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