Plasmodium merozoites are covered by a complex coat of surface proteins. Several of the Merozoite Surface Proteins (MSPs) that make up this coat have been proposed as vaccine candidates although some of the MSPs are known to be highly polymorphic. We present here the first survey and analysis of the polymorphism in the recently characterized P. vivax surface protein PvMSP-3α. Full length or partial sequences were obtained for the Pvmsp-3α gene from isolates originating in Central and South America, Asia and the Pacific. The Pvmsp-3α sequence is remarkably diverse, but this extensive diversity is largely restricted to certain domains of the encoded protein. An acidic C-terminal domain and a smaller hydrophilic N-terminus are relatively conserved, while a central domain containing coiled-coil heptad repeats is highly polymorphic and in some isolates of P. vivax is partially deleted. Unlike other MSPs, there is no evidence of allelic families of PvMSP-3α gene sequences, and no evidence that certain patterns of polymorphism group within isolates of similar geographical origin. The distribution and nature of polymorphism suggest that there are functional restrictions on mutations in this gene, and have implications for inclusion of PvMSP-3α as a candidate in a P. vivax vaccine.
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