Drug-resistant malaria poses a major public health problem throughout the world and the need for new antimalarial drugs is growing. The apicoplast, a chloroplast-like organelle essential for malaria parasite survival and with no counterpart in humans, offers an attractive target for selectively toxic new therapies. The apicoplast genome (plDNA) is a 35 kb circular DNA that is served by gyrase, a prokaryotic type II topoisomerase. Gyrase is poisoned by fluoroquinolone antibacterials that stabilize a catalytically inert ternary complex of enzyme, its plDNA substrate, and inhibitor. We used fluoroquinolones to study the gyrase and plDNA of Plasmodium falciparum. New methods for isolating and separating plDNA reveal four topologically different forms and permit a quantitative exam of perturbations that result from gyrase poisoning. In keeping with its role in DNA replication, gyrase is most abundant in late stages of the parasite lifecycle, but several lines of evidence indicate that even in these cells the enzyme is present in relatively low abundance: about 1 enzyme for every two plDNAs or a ratio of 1 gyrase: 70 kb DNA. For a spectrum of quinolones, correlation was generally good between antimalarial activity and gyrase poisoning, the putative molecular mechanism of drug action. However, in P. falciparum there is evidence for off-target toxicity, particularly for ciprofloxacin. These studies highlight the utility of the new methods and of fluoroquinolones as a tool for studying the in situ workings of gyrase and its plDNA substrate.
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