Journal of molecular evolution

Accessible mutational trajectories for the evolution of pyrimethamine resistance in the malaria parasite Plasmodium vivax.

PMID 24071997


Antifolate antimalarials, such as pyrimethamine, have experienced a dramatic reduction in therapeutic efficacy as resistance has evolved in multiple malaria species. We present evidence from one such species, Plasmodium vivax, which has experienced sustained selection for pyrimethamine resistance at the dihydrofolate reductase (DHFR) locus since the 1970s. Using a transgenic Saccharomyces cerevisiae model expressing the P. vivax DHFR enzyme, we assayed growth rate and resistance of all 16 combinations of four DHFR amino acid substitutions. These substitutions were selected based on their known association with drug resistance, both in natural isolates and in laboratory settings, in the related malaria species P. falciparum. We observed a strong correlation between the resistance phenotypes for these 16 P. vivax alleles and previously observed resistance data for P. falciparum, which was surprising since nucleotide diversity levels and common polymorphic variants of DHFR differ between the two species. Similar results were observed when we expressed the P. vivax alleles in a transgenic bacterial system. This suggests common constraints on enzyme evolution in the orthologous DHFR proteins. The interplay of negative trade-offs between the evolution of novel resistance and compromised endogenous function varies at different drug dosages, and so too do the major trajectories for DHFR evolution. In simulations, it is only at very high drug dosages that the most resistant quadruple mutant DHFR allele is favored by selection. This is in agreement with common polymorphic DHFR data in P. vivax, from which this quadruple mutant is missing. We propose that clinical dosages of pyrimethamine may have historically been too low to select for the most resistant allele, or that the fitness cost of the most resistant allele was untenable without a compensatory mutation elsewhere in the genome.