Apicomplexans are an important group of pathogens that include the causative agents of malaria, toxoplasmosis, and cryptosporidiosis. These single-celled eukaryotic parasites evolved from photosynthetic algae. A remnant chloroplast, called the apicoplast, is a hold-over from this more benign past in the ocean. The apicoplast is essential for parasite growth and development and therefore a potential target for drug therapy. The fact that humans and animals lack chloroplasts suggests that using approaches to target the apicoplast may provide parasite specificity. What are the critical functions of the apicoplast that should be targeted? In addition to the obvious medical relevance this question has broader biological implications. Why do organisms maintain an ancient symbiotic relationship when the initial rationale for this relationship has fallen by the evolutionary wayside?
A new study provides important clues. It demonstrates that antibiotic-induced loss of the apicoplast in cultured malaria parasites can be chemically rescued by providing isopentenyl-pyrophosphate (IPP) in the medium. IPP is generated by the apicoplast resident isoprenoid biosynthesis pathway and is apparently the one apicoplast metabolite that the parasite cannot live without in the red blood cell. This finding could be of great importance for the development of drugs and vaccines. The ability to produce and maintain parasite lines that lack the apicoplast also offers exciting experimental possibilities for the future.