Whole-genome comparisons are highly informative regarding genome evolution and can reveal the conservation of genome organization and gene content, gene regulatory elements, and presence of species-specific genes. Initial comparative genome analyses of the human malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum and rodent malaria parasites (RMPs) revealed a core set of 4,500 Plasmodium orthologs located in the highly syntenic central regions of the chromosomes that sharply defined the boundaries of the variable subtelomeric regions. We used composite RMP contigs, based on partial DNA sequences of three RMPs, to generate a whole-genome synteny map of P. falciparum and the RMPs. The core regions of the 14 chromosomes of P. falciparum and the RMPs are organized in 36 synteny blocks, representing groups of genes that have been stably inherited since these malaria species diverged, but whose relative organization has altered as a result of a predicted minimum of 15 recombination events. P. falciparum-specific genes and gene families are found in the variable subtelomeric regions (575 genes), at synteny breakpoints (42 genes), and as intrasyntenic indels (126 genes).
Of the 168 non-subtelomeric P. falciparum genes, including two newly discovered gene families, 68 are predicted to be exported to the surface of the blood stage parasite or infected erythrocyte. Chromosomal rearrangements are implicated in the generation and dispersal of P. falciparum-specific gene families, including one encoding receptor-associated protein kinases. The data show that both synteny breakpoints and intrasyntenic indels can be foci for species-specific genes with a predicted role in host-parasite interactions and suggest that, besides rearrangements in the subtelomeric regions, chromosomal rearrangements may also be involved in the generation of species-specific gene families. A majority of these genes are expressed in blood stages, suggesting that the vertebrate host exerts a greater selective pressure than the mosquito vector, resulting in the acquisition of diversity.