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Logo of nihpaAbout Author manuscriptsSubmit a manuscriptHHS Public Access; Author Manuscript; Accepted for publication in peer reviewed journal;
Mol Biochem Parasitol. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2010 March 1.
Published in final edited form as:
PMCID: PMC2663568

The cathepsin L of Toxoplasma gondii (TgCPL) and its endogenous macromolecular inhibitor, toxostatin[shadowed white star]


T. gondii is an obligate intracellular parasite of all vertebrates, including man. Successful invasion and replication requires the synchronized release of parasite proteins, many of which require proteolytic processing. Unlike most parasites, T. gondii has a limited number of Clan CA, family C1 cysteine proteinases with one cathepsin B (TgCPB), one cathepsin L (TgCPL) and three cathepsin Cs (TgCPC1, 2, 3). Previously, we characterized toxopain, the only cathepsin B enzyme, which localizes to the rhoptry organelle. Two cathepsin Cs are trafficked through dense granules to the parasitophorous vacuole where they degrade peptides. We now report the cloning, expression, and modeling of the sole cathepsin L gene and the identification of two new endogenous inhibitors. TgCPL differs from human cathepsin L with a pH optimum of 6.5 and its substrate preference for leucine (vs. phenylalanine) in the P2 position. This distinct preference is explained by homology modeling, which reveals a non-canonical aspartic acid (Asp 216) at the base of the predicted active site S2 pocket, which limits substrate access. To further our understanding of the regulation of cathepsins in T. gondii, we identified two genes encoding endogenous cysteine proteinase inhibitors (ICPs or toxostatins), which are active against both TgCPB and TgCPL in the nanomolar range. Over expression of toxostatin-1 significantly decreased overall cysteine proteinase activity in parasite lysates, but had no detectable effect on invasion or intracellular multiplication. These findings provide important insights into the proteolytic cascades of T. gondii and their endogenous control.

Keywords: Toxoplasma gondii, cysteine proteinases, cathepsin L, inhibitor of cysteine proteinases

1. Introduction

Toxoplasma gondii is an obligate intracellular protozoan parasite that can invade and replicate in any nucleated cell of multiple vertebrate hosts, including humans [13]. Toxoplasmosis causes a range of manifestations from asymptomatic to fatal infection. Primary infection of the fetus, which occurs in approximately 1 in 1,000 live births, causes devastating, and often fatal disease [4]. Reactivation of latent toxoplasmosis most often manifests as toxoplasma encephalitis in AIDS patients. Without treatment, toxoplasma encephalitis is uniformly fatal in this population [5].

Invasion by T. gondii is regulated by the sequential release of a set of unique apical complex organelles: micronemes, rhoptries, and dense granules [1]. The majority of these key proteins require proteolytic processing. Cysteine proteinases are likely candidates as they are involved in host cell invasion and/or replication in a number of other Apicomplexa parasites such as Plasmodium [67] and Cryptosporidium [8]. These proteinases also appear to be crucial in the process of invasion of toxoplasma. Unlike most protozoa, T. gondii has a limited number of Clan CA, family C1 cysteine proteinases with only one cathepsin B (TgCPB), one cathepsin L (TgCPL), and three cathepsin C’s (TgCPC 1, 2, and 3) [9]. We have shown that the cathepsin B, TgCPB, is essential to the invasion and replication of Toxoplasma as specific inhibitors or antisense to TgCPB blocked the invasion of host cells and caused abnormal rhoptry morphology [10]. Inhibition of TgCPB also limited in vivo infection in a chick embryo model of disseminated toxoplasmosis [11]. The cathepsin Cs are key for intracellular survival of the parasite and degrade peptides within the parasitophorous vacuole [12]. We now report the first expression and characterization of active Toxoplasma gondii cathepsin L.

The intracellular control of proteolytic activity within a protozoan is critical. The activity of cysteine proteinases of higher eukaryotes is controlled by a number of endogenous inhibitors, including cystatins and α2-Macroglobulin. No genes homologous to cystatins have been detected in protozoa, but several protozoa, including T. cruzi [13], T. brucei [14], Leishmania [15], E. histolytica [16], and P. falciparum [17] synthesize endogenous inhibitors with a novel conserved structure, called Inhibitor of Cysteine Proteinases or ICP. Related proteins have also been identified in bacteria but are absent in higher eukaryotes [18, 19]. The structure of the L. mexicana ICP [15] and chagasin [20, 21] were recently described and have a unique immunoglobulin-like fold. ICPs may inhibit parasite cysteine proteinases as in T. cruzi [13] and T. brucei [14] or host proteinases as in Leishmania [15]. We now report the identification of genes encoding two cysteine protease inhibitors, toxostatin-1 and 2, which inhibit T. gondii cathepsin L and B in the nanomolar range. Further understanding of the interactions of toxoplasma cathepsins and these endogenous inhibitors should shed light on their role in the pathogenesis of toxoplasmosis.

2. Materials and methods

2.1. Toxoplasma cultures

Primary human foreskin fibroblasts (HFF) were cultured in Dulbecco's modified Eagle's medium (MEM) supplemented with 10% fetal calf serum (FCS) (Irvine Scientific, Irvine, CA) and penicillin and streptomycin (50 µg/ml) and maintained subsequently in the same medium with 2% FCS. T. gondii RH tachyzoites were maintained by serial passage in HFF monolayers in MEM supplemented with 10% FCS and 20 µg/ml gentamicin solution at 37°C in a humid 5% CO2 atmosphere.

2.2. Isolation of the TgCPL Gene from a Toxoplasma cDNA Library

DNA primers were synthesized based upon the partial cathepsin L sequence submitted in Genbank by Hansner et. al [22] (AF184984.1) to amplify a truncated 501 base pair fragment from genomic DNA (TgCPL5: 5-’CAGGGGCAGTGCGGGAGGTGTTGGGC-3’ and TGCPL3: 5’-CCAGGTGTTTTT-GACGAT-CCAATAG-3’). The PCR derived probe was radiolabeled with P32 dCTP with DNA polymerase I (Promega) and used to screen the cDNA RH(EP) T. gondii bacteriophage lambda library (NIH AIDS Research and Reference Reagent Program). Positive spots, confirmed using duplicate filters, were cored from the agar plates and re-suspended in SM buffer. Positive phage were subjected to another round of screening, the phagemid rescued, and the DNA sequenced as previously described [23]. The complete sequence is in GenBank under accession number EU304362.

2.3. Expression of recombinant TgCPL and TgCPB in Pichia

DNA primers were designed to amplify the full-length pro-mature TgCPL (5’- GAA TTC ATG GAC AGC AGC GAG ACG CAC TAC-3’ and 5’-GCG GCC GCT CAC ATC ACG GGG AAA GAC GCA TCT-3’) or truncated pro-mature protein (5’-GAA TTC TCG TTC CTC ATT CAG TGG CAG GGC-3’ and 5’-GCG GCC GCT CAC ATC ACG GGG AAA GAC GCA TCT-3’) from the purified TgCPL cDNA library phagemid. Primers for pro-mature TgCPB (5’-CTC GAG AAA AGA ACC CCG GAC GAC TCG TTG TTT CCG CTT-3’) and (3’-GCG GCC GCC TAC ATT TCT CTC TCC TCT TCT GC-5’) were used to amplify the gene from total cell cDNA. Cloning of the sequences into the pPiczαA plasmid (Invitrogen), electroporation into X-33 cells, selection of proteinase expressing clones, and purification were performed as previously described [24].

2.4. Antibody production and immunoblots

Polyclonal antibody to TgCPL was produced by immunizing rabbits three times with 100 µg of recombinant protein mixed with Titermax Gold Adjuvant® (Sigma). The TgCPL antiserum was affinity-purified by adsorption and desorption to recombinant rTgCPL expressed in E. coli or Pichia on nitrocellulose membranes [10]. The specificity of the TgCPL antiserum was confirmed by immunoblots containing rTgCPL (100–500 ng) and toxoplasma lysate (1.7 × 107 tachyzoites) and detected with rabbit anti-rTgCPL anti-serum (1:1000) and goat-anti-rabbit IgG horseradish peroxidase (HRP, 1:10,000) using SuperSignal™ (Pierce) [10].

Antibodies were produced to toxostatin-1 in rabbits by the same procedure as above. Additional antibodies were also produced by immunizing Rhode Island Red chickens with gelpurified TgICP1 in Freund’s complete adjuvant, followed by monthly boosting in Freund’s incomplete for 5 months (Robert Sargeant Antibodies, Ramona, CA). IgY was purified from egg yolks by solubilization in a 1:1.5:2 ratio of egg yolk:PBS: chloroform, centrifugation at 3000 rpm for 30 minutes, precipitation with 12% PEG6000, and resuspended in TBS, 0.5% Tween, 1mM EDTA. Monospecific antibody was generated by affinity-purification with rTgICP1 on immunoblots as detailed above [10]. For toxostatin blots, recombinant protein or parasite lysates were electrophoresed, blotted, and detected with polyclonal rabbit or chicken antibody against toxostatin-1 or Au-1 monoclonal antibody (1 µg/ml, Covance Research Products) and probed with goat anti-chicken, rabbit, or mouse-HRP (Zymed), followed by chemiluminescence detection (Super Signal,Pierce).

2.5. Activity and substrate specificity of TgCPL

Proteinase activity was measured based on the liberation of the fluorescent leaving group, 4-amino-7-methylcoumarin (AMC), from synthetic peptide substrates to determine the preferred cleavage of the P1 and P2 sites as previously described [10]. Recombinant TgCPL was activated by pre-incubating with 5mM DTT (dithiothreitol) for 10 minutes in a substrate buffer of 50 mM sodium citrate, 2mM EDTA. 0.005% Triton X-100 at pH 6.5. The Michaelis constant (Km) of TgCPL for the synthetic substrates Z-Arg-Arg-AMC, Z-Phe-Arg-AMC, and Z-Lys-Arg was measured using increasing concentrations of synthetic peptide substrates (2.0 to 150 µM) and determined using the Enzfitter software (Biosoft, Cambridge, United Kingdom).

Native TgCPL was immunoprecipitated from tachyzoite lysates (1.5 × 109) with 1 µg monospecific rabbit anti-TgCPL followed by binding to protein A/G agarose (Santa Cruz Biotechnology), and resuspended in sample buffer or by binding to FK-29C, a biotinylated inhibitor (10 µM, MP Bioproducts) followed by strepavidin agarose. Native and recombinant TgCPL were electrophoresed on a 4–20% gradient SDS gel. The N-terminal peptide sequence of recombinant TgCPL was obtained from the protein band on the gel, while the native protein was transferred to a 0.45 µM polyvinylidenedifluoride membrane (Immobilon, Millipore Corp., Bedford, MA), the mature proteinase band stained with Coomassie blue, excised, and sequenced by Edman degradation in an Applied Biosystems Procise Liquid Pulse Protein Sequenator at the Stanford University Protein and Nucleic Acids Facility.

The pH optimum of TgCPL was determined by comparing the cleavage of the preferred peptide substrate, Z-KQKLR-AMC, in Na2HPO4/citric acid buffer with pH’s ranging from 5.0–8.0.

2.6. Homology modeling of TgCPL

Homology modeling of the mature domain of Toxoplasma gondii cathepsin L was perfomed using human cathepsin K (PDB ID 1U9X) as a template. The sequence of human cathepsin K was found to be the most similar to that of Toxoplasma gondii cathepsin L based on BLAST searching. ClustalW, with a blosum matrix and penalties of 10.0 for open gaps and 0.05 for gap extensions [25] was used to perform sequence alignment. A three-dimensional model of TgCPL was generated using the program Modeller [26].

2.7. Immunofluorescent and electron microscopy

Confluent human foreskin fibroblasts on Labtek II slides were infected with T. gondii tachyzoites (50,000 per well) for 24 hrs at 37°C, washed, fixed with 4% paraformaldehyde and permeabilized as previously described [10]. Slides were incubated with rabbit anti-TgCPL (1:500), anti-ROP2,3,4 monoclonal antibody (1:500, a kind gift of Jean Francois Dubremetz), dense granule GRA3 monoclonal antibodies (1:500, from Dr. Vern Carruthers), anti-microneme antibody at 1:500 (AMA-1, from Drs. Peter Bradley and John Boothroyd), or monoclonal (1:100, Sigma) or rabbit polyclonal antibody to au-1 (1:200, QED, San Diego, CA), and detected with goat-anti-rabbit IgG (1:200, Alexa 594) or goat anti-mouse IgG (Alexa 488).

Immunoelectron microscopy was performed on infected monolayers fixed in 2% paraformaldehyde, 0.1% glutaraldehyde, 0.1M cacodylate buffer, pH 7.4 and cryoprotected with 20% polyvinyl pyrrolidone (Sigma) in 2.3M sucrose as previously described [27]. Sections were incubated with affinity purified rabbit anti-TgCPL at a 1:50 dilution followed by goat anti-rabbit conjugated with 10 nm gold (Ted Pella Inc, Ca.) at a 1:50 dilution for 60 minutes. The sections were then stained with oxalate uranyl acetate and embedded in 1.5% methyl cellulose (Sigma, Mo.), 0.3% aqueous uranyl acetate (Ted Pella Inc., Ca.), and examined with a Philips Tecnai 10 electron microscope.

2.8. Cloning and identification of the toxostatin genes

The T. gondii Genome Database ( was searched for the signature motifs (NPTTGY and/or V/I-X5-G-X8-VRPW) to the chagasin and cystatin family using the BLAST and protein motif program. The putative ICP family genes were identified from EST and cDNA database (TgTwin_Scan). Total cellular RNA from T. gondii was isolated using RNAzol reagent (Invitrogen) and transcribed into cDNAs using Superscipt II reverse transcriptase and oligo(dT) primer. Toxostatin-1 and 2 were amplified from T. gondii RH cDNA and cloned into pQE80L (Qiagen) respectively using primers based on the sequence data from TgTwin_Scan_6575 and 7478 of An alignment of the toxostatins with the chagasin protein family was prepared using ClustalW program. The toxostatin sequences were deposited in GenBankTM under accession numbers EF452500 and EF452501. The predicted cleavage site for the signal peptidase was determined according to Von Heijne [ 28].

2.9. Heterologous expression and purification of recombinant toxostatins

The toxostatin coding sequences (without the N-terminal signal region) were amplified from T. gondii cDNA with primers incorporating SacI and HindIII restriction sites and an N-terminal histidine tag (TgICP1-SacI: 5′-ATA GAG CTC TGC CCG AGC GCG TGC GTC CAC-3′ and TgICP1-HindIII: 5′ - AAT AAG CTT GTC CGT TGC ATG AAT ATG GAC CAC-3′; TgICP2-BamHI: 5’-GATA GGA TCC AGG CAA GGT ACG TCG CCG CGC GCT-3’ and TgICP2-HindIII: 5’-GAAT AAG CTT GTC GAA GTG TAC GAG AGC GAC GAA G-3’). The cDNA fragments were digested with SacI and HindIII, inserted into the linearized vector, pQE80L (Promega), and transformed into E. coli JM109 with ampicillin (100 µg/ml) selection. Selected clones were characterized by restriction mapping and sequenced.

For protein expression, E. coli JM109 was induced with 1 mM isopropyl-d-thiogalactopyranoside (IPTG) for 4 h, and the recombinant proteins purified by nickel affinity chromatography with imidazole as previously described [10]. Protein purity and concentration were estimated by Coomassie blue staining and immunoblots with His-tag antibody or anti-toxostatin antibodies. Toxostatins were purified to apparent homogeneity (>90%) by SDS–PAGE analysis.

Inhibition of cysteine protease activity was measured by pre-incubation of cathepsin L or cathepsin B with rToxostatin-1 at various dilutions for 30 min at room temperature in 100 mM sodium phosphate, pH 6.0, containing 2 mM EDTA and 1 mM DTT, and subsequent addition of 8 µM Z-Phe-Arg-AMC (for TgCPL) or Z-Arg-Arg-AMC (for TgCPB). The IC50 was calculated as the concentration of inhibitor resulting in 50% inhibition of proteinase activity compared with non-inhibited controls.

2.10. Over-expression of toxostatin-1

The pminiHXGPRT-gra1 vector (NIH AIDS Research and Reference Reagent Program) containing a strong promoter of T. gondii gra1 gene with C-terminal AU1 epitope tag, was used to drive the overexpression of toxostatin-1. The coding sequence of toxostatin-1was amplified by PCR from T. gondii strain RH cDNA with BglII and AvrII incorporated into primers. The PCR amplicon was digested with BglII and AvrII and ligated in frame into the linearized vector. Plasmid DNA was purified from transformed E. coli clone using a Maxiprep kit (Qiagen) and sequenced. Tachyzoites of T. gondii ΔHXGPRT strain were electroporated with 50 µg of plasmid DNA (pminiHXGPRT-gra1-TgICP1-au1) and transfectants identified through MPA/X selection (25 ug/ml mycophenolic acid + 50 ug/ml xanthine).

Tachyzoites (5 × 105 control or pminiHXGPRT-gra1-TgICP1) were added to fibroblast monolayers in chamber slides and invasion determined by acridine orange staining at 2 h and intracellular multiplication at 24 h as previously described [10].

3. Results

3.1. Cloning of TgCPL

The sequence of proTgCPL was obtained by screening the Toxoplasma gondii RH(EP) λ cDNA with a PCR derived DNA probe based upon a previously submitted truncated T. gondii cathepsin L Genbank sequence. Clone TgCPL53 encoded a predicted 421 amino acid zymogen, which includes an 1197 bp 3’ c-terminal extension and a 378 bp 5’ non-coding region. Analysis of the deduced open reading frame revealed the classic cathepsin L amino acid motifs ERFNIN, KNFD, and SPV. The full-length zymogen consists of a deduced 221 amino acid mature protein, 125 amino acid pro-region, and a 75 amino acid pre-region. A 23 amino acid potential transmembrane domain spans the pre-pro region (SOSUI Signal Program: Two potential N-glycosylation sites were predicted utilizing the YinOYang 1.2 software algorithm ( BlastP analysis indicated homology with other protozoal cathepsin L-like genes, including 55% deduced amino acid identity with Sarcocystis muris, 44% with C. parvum, 38% with Falcipain-3, 36% with Falcipain-2, and 24% with TgCPB (Figure 1).

Figure 1Figure 1
Alignment of TgCPL with related cathepsins

3.2. Purification and activity of rTgCPL

Pichia pastoris has proven to be a useful system for expressing active recombinant cathepsins [24], which are usually lethal to bacteria. We took advantage of expression of the TgCPL and B as proenzymes with an α-mating factor fusion, which promotes secretion into the media. After concentration and purification by anion exchange column using FPLC, a single band with Mr ~32 kD was detected (Figure 2). Since the predicted Mr of mature TgCPL is 24 kD, this band is consistent with partially processed pro-mature rTgCPL or aberrant electrophoretic motility as seen with cruzain from T. cruzi [29]. To confirm this, we obtained the N-terminal sequence of the active, recombinant enzyme: LAGVDWRSR, confirming that the cleavage occurred at the predicted site (see double arrow, Figure 1). The N-terminus of the native enzyme was blocked, but since it has the same electrophoretic mobility as the recombinant enzyme, we assume that the endogenous mature proteinase is similarly processed and lacks the transmembrane domain.

Figure 2
Purified, active rTgCPL

rTgCPL has the greatest affinity for leucine in the P2 site with a Km of 7 ± 0.7 µM (Table 1), while the preferred substrate of human cathepsin L, Z-FR-AMC, had a Km of 15.7 + 1.0 µM. Homology modeling revealed the molecular basis for this substrate specificity (see 3.3). rTgCPL was active in broad pH range from 4 to 8, but maximal at pH 6.5 (Figure 3).

Figure 3
pH optimum of active TgCPL
Table 1
Enzyme Kinetics of TgCPL

3.3. Homology modeling of TgCPL

The sequence of the mature domain of Toxoplasma gondii cathepsin L showed 50% identity with human cathepsin K. Based on a BLAST search of sequences that have known three-dimensional structures, human cathepsin K showed the highest degree of similarity and was therefore used as a modeling template. Comparing the model of TgCPL with the three-dimensional structure of human cathepsin L (PDB ID 1CJL or 1CS8) revealed significant differences in the area of the enzyme active site. In the model of TgCPL, an aspartic acid (Asp 216) is present in the bottom of the pocket (Figure 4). In human cathepsin L, the comparable position is filled by an alanine (Ala 214). The presence of an inflexible aspartic acid in the pocket of TgCPL likely is the basis for the observed substrate preference for leucine in P2 vs. the usual preference of cathepsin Ls for phenylalanine as the larger phenyalanine cannot be accommodated (Figure 5) [30]. The remainder of the S2 region maintains some similarity. Both enzymes have a methionine in the S2 pocket region (Toxoplasma Met 74 and human Met 70). Futhermore, modeling of the Toxoplasma enzyme shows Leu 163 in this cleft while the human enzyme has Met 161 in the comparable position.

Figure 4
Structure of the active site pocket of TgCPL superimposed on the structure of human cathepsin L
Figure 5Figure 5
Modeling of substrate specificity of TgCPL and cruzain

The apparent shape of the space available in the S3 regions of the two enzymes is visibly different, with the human enzyme having more room than the Toxoplasma enzyme. In addition, the TgCPL’s S3 region contains more abundant opportunity for charge-stabilizing interactions with Glu 64, Glu 73, Gln 67 and the main chain carbonyl group of Gly 65 lining the available surface of the S3 area. In contrast, human cathepsin L shows Tyr 72, Leu 69, Glu 63 and the main chain carbonyl of Gly 61 in comparable positions. The difference in the relative depth and breadth of this region in the two enzymes is particularly obvious around Toxoplasma Gly 65/human Gly61, however there are no sequence inserts or deletions in this region that account for the predicted difference of the S3 pocket.

3.4. Localization of TgCPL

We produced a polyclonal antibody, which reacts with native TgCPL, for localization within the tachyzoite. TgCPL was found primarily in the apical end of the tachyzoite (Figure 6A), but did not co-localize with any apical organelles, including rhoptries, dense granules, or micronemes (data not shown). Electron microscopy confirmed that TgCPL localized to a small vesicle population (Figure 6B). Although TgCPL has a putative transmembrane domain, it is cleaved from the mature enzyme (Figure 1), and no membrane localization was detected.

Figure 6
Localization of TgCPL

3.5. Analysis of the toxostatin genes

We queried the T. gondii genome database for signature motifs homologous to that of chagasin, a cysteine protease inhibitor first described in T. cruzi [13]. We identified two putative chagasin family genes, toxostatin-1 and 2. The derived amino acid sequences consist of 177 and 258 amino acid residues with calculated molecular masses (without signal peptides) of Mr 17 kDa and 25 kDa, respectively. Toxostatin-1 and 2 show only low homology to each other (28% identity and 42% similarity) with a 15% gap. Only toxostatin-2 contains a 48 aa N-terminal extension and a 51 aa internal insertion resembling serine proteinase inhibitors (serpins) from plants. According to an alignment of selected sequences using the CLUSTAL W algorithm, the overall sequence homology of toxostatin-2 to the chagasin family of T. cruzi, E. histolytica, Leishmania major or Plasmodium is less than 15%. However, the amino acid sequence of toxostatin-1 has about 22% identical (49% similarity) to a C-terminal domain of an ICP-like inhibitor sequence from P. berghei (Figure 7).

Figure 7
Amino acid sequence alignment of members of the chagasin family with toxostatin-1 and 2

Expression levels of toxostatin-1 and 2 mRNA differed in parasite developmental stages based on SAGE and EST data. Toxostatin-1 is expressed in high level with more than 110 EST tags found from all stages including tachyzoites, bradyzoites and sporozoites while toxostatin-2 is expressed in relatively low levels with 7 EST tags found only from tachyzoite cDNA (

3.6. Purification and activity of recombinant toxostatin-1

We over expressed the toxostatins heterologously in E. coli, resulting in approximately 45% of total cellular proteins (data not shown). The recombinant proteins were primarily soluble and were purified by nickel affinity chromotography to 95% homogeneity. The recombinant proteins have apparent molecular weights of 17 kDa and 25 kDa respectively (Figure 8A), similar to the theoretical value calculated from its predicted amino acid sequence.

Figure 8
Recombinant and over expressed toxostatins

To investigate the function of the toxostatins, purified recombinant toxostatin-1 was used to test inhibitory activity against cathepsins from T. gondii. Recombinant toxostatin-1 effectively inhibited the peptidase activity of rTgCPL and rTgCPB in the nanomolar range (IC50=24.0 nM for rTgCPL and 31.4 nM for rTgCPB). Toxostatin-1 also inhibited human cathepsin L (IC50=9.9 nM), more efficiently than human cathepsin B (IC50=146.5 nM).

The role of toxostatin-1 in T. gondii was further tested by over-expression of toxostatin-1 with an au-1 tag under control of the strong gra1 promoter (Figure 8B). Localization studies of epitope tagged toxostatin-1 revealed signal throughout the cell, likely reflecting aberrant trafficking from over expression (data not shown). The cathepsin activity (both cathepsin B and L) was reduced by >90% in toxostatin-1 transfected tachyzoite lysates. To determine if inhibition of the cathepsin activity affected invasion or intracellular multiplication, monolayers were infected with wild type RH or toxostatin-1-over expressing strains. Neither the amount of invasion at 2 h or multiplication at 24 hr was affected (data not shown).


Toxoplasmosis remains a major cause of congenital infection and causes serious complications in infected, immunocompromised hosts. While standard treatment is generally accessible and relatively inexpensive, the frequency of adverse events from sulfa drug therapy, some of which can prove fatal, necessitates the search for safe alternatives. Parasitic cysteine proteinases are key enzymes encompassing a broad-range of biological functions including evasion of the host immune defenses, host cell/tissue invasion, and proteolytic processing of precursor proteins. These enzymes have been targeted for chemotherapy using synthetic peptide inhibitors, as host cathepsin homologues are biochemically and structurally distinct and have greater redundancy than parasite cathepsins.

Cysteine proteinases are also critical enzymes in the invasion and replication of several Apicomplexa protozoa, including Toxoplasma gondii [10], Eimeria [31], and Plasmodia [6, 32, 33]. Toxoplasma is unique among protozoa with only a limited number of Clan CA, family C1 cathepsins, including one Cathepsin B [10], one L, and three Cs [12].

The TgCPL protein is synthesized as a zymogen consisting of a 75 amino acid presequence, a 124 amino acid pro-sequence, and a 222 amino acid mature region (Figure 1). TgCPL contains the highly conserved ERFNIN amino acid motif within the pro-region, which is characteristic of cathepsin L-like cysteine proteinases. A BlastP homology search of TgCPL resulted in the highest match to the cathepsin L gene from the apicomplexan Sarcocystis muris (55% deduced amino acid identity), which has been reported to be secreted into the parasitophorous vacuole from the dense granules [22]. Previous studies of a human cathepsin L demonstrated the necessity of a carboxy-terminal amino acid motif (S-X-P-X-V) for protein secretion [34]. TgCPL contains a similar motif (S-F-P-V-M) at the carboxy-terminal. Interestingly, when Chauhan et. al. removed the second non-specific amino acid from the pentamer motif, they found that human cathepsin L was still secreted (S-Y-P-V). Proteomics data did not indicate the presence of TgCPL from secreted T. gondii proteins, which included several dense granule proteins of unknown function [35].

A potential transmembrane domain was predicted spanning the 3’ end of the pre-region and the 5’ end of the pro-region of TgCPL using the SOSUI prediction program [36], but this is cleaved from the mature enzyme, which would explain the lack of membrane localization by fluorescent or immunoelectron microscopy (Figure 6). The potential transmembrane domain within the P. falciparum genes falcipain-2 and falcipain-3 is responsible for the proper targeting to the plasmodium plasma membrane through the endoplasmic reticulum and secretory pathway [37]. Additionally, a unique bipartite motif from both the cytoplasmic and luminal portions of the falcipain-2 prodomain has been demonstrated to be essential for targeting the cathepsin into the food vacuole [37]. There is no homology to the same region in TgCPL, and the role, if any, of the TgCPL transmembrane domain and pro-region as a trafficking regulator is currently unknown.

The function of the 1307bp TgCPL 3’UTR is also unknown. In other eukaryotes, the 3’ UTR is capable of binding proteins, including endonucleases, to regulate transcription levels. In two human cathepsin B genes, protein binding within the 3’ UTR has been shown to stabilize the stem-loop structure [38]. In the closely related protozoan, Plasmodium falciparum, gene expression can be upregulated through elements within the 3’ flanking sequences [39]; however, equivalent regulatory sequences are not present in the TgCPL 3’ UTR. Additionally, miRNA’s can inhibit translation by binding to the 3’UTR in higher eukaryotes [40]. Cis-regulated regions in the 5’ UTR’s of the enolase genes [41] and the nucleoside triphosphate hydrolase gene [42] of T. gondii have been previously reported. No evidence has been definitively presented linking the binding of protein, presence of regulatory elements, or miRNA in 3’ UTR gene regulation of T. gondii.

The preferred substrate of most cathepsin Ls, including human, is for Phe in the P2 position. TgCPL is unusual in its preference for Leu in the P2 position (Table 1). These differences in substrate preferences can be explained by homology modeling (Figure 4 and Figure 5). The aspartic acid side chain at the base of the TgCPL S2 pocket is less flexible and cannot rotate out of the pocket to accommodate large incoming groups, such as Phe. Leucine, in contrast, is shorter and more flexible. Limited binding of Phe likely occurs through interactions with the hydrophobic walls of the pocket, which provide enough stabilizing interactions to accommodate partial insertion. In the human enzyme, the small and hydrophobic alanine moiety can readily accommodate Phe, Val or Leu at P2.

Steric considerations for substrate preferences can be illustrated by making use of known structures of another papain super family cysteine protease, cruzain [29], in complex with small molecule inhibitors. These complex structures provide a template for the comparison of potential binding of substrates to TgCPL. Superimposition of the three-dimensional structures of different inhibitor-bound complexes of cruzain on the model structure of TgCPL allow for the approximation of the positioning of various moieties in the toxo enzyme’s active site region. Superimposition of cruzain bound to an inhibitor (PDB ID 1F2A) [29] with Phe in the P2 position (rms deviation of protein superimposition 0.952 Å) on the TgCPL model clearly illustrates that Phe is too large of a side chain to sit in this pocket. Steric clash is evident with Asp 216 at the base of the pocket (Figure 5A). In contrast, superimposition of cruzain bound to an inhibitor with Leu in the P2 position (PDB ID 1EWP) (rms deviation of protein superimposition = 0.965 Å) reveals the more ready accommodation of a Leu side chain. Similar probing of the structure of human cathepsin L reveals that there is indeed adequate space for Phe and Leu to fit in the S2 pocket with an alanine at the base (Figure 5B).

Protein modeling predicts that the mature region of TgCPL should be exposed to the extracellular space, raising the possibility of its potential role in host cell invasion and/or immunoevasion [28]. While immunofluorescent imaging did not show membrane-associated staining, antigen presentation could be a transient event dictated by the stage of infection. Carruther’s group found that cysteine proteinase inhibitors blocked microneme protein secretion [43], and TgCPL may be linked to microneme protein processing (V. Carruthers, personal communication).

Roles for cathepsin L-like cysteine proteinases in Apicomplexa have been best defined in Plasmodium. Falcipain-2 and 3 are critical for hemoglobin degradation in the food vacuoles of P. falciparum [6]. Disruption of falcipain-3 is lethal, while knock-out of falcipain-2 results in accumulation of hemoglobin in food vacuoles [32]. Disruption of falcipain-1, reduced oocyst production by 70–90%, suggesting an important function of this cysteine proteinase in the parasite’s development in the mosquito midgut [7]. The cathepsin L gene in Cryptosporidium is the earliest known lineage in the cathepsin L-like family [44], but the gene has not been cloned or further characterized.

In evaluating potential inhibitors of TgCPL, we identified two proteinaceous inhibitors of cysteine proteinases (ICPs). Functional homology has been identified between proteinase peptidase inhibitors of both protozoa (Trypanosoma cruzi [13], T. brucei [14], Leishmania [15], P. falciparum [17]) and bacteria (Pseudomonas aeruginosa [18, 19]) with a universal inhibition of clan CA, family C1 cysteine peptidases, despite low sequence similarities between these inhibitors [19]. Comparison of the toxostatin sequence with those of several ICP inhibitors from other organisms (Figure 7) shows that these proteins typically contain three regions with conserved sequence elements: NPTTGY(F)xW at positions 24–34, GxGG at positions 59–62 and LxYxRPW(F) at positions 80–86, respectively. The first motif of cruzipain has been shown to interact with the catalytic cysteine of the target protease [21]. This was confirmed in a recent mutagenesis study of chagasin in which the L2 loop, containing the NPPTGY motif, was critical to inhibit its native target, cruzain [45]. The key inhibitory residues may depend on the target enzyme, however, as mutants in Loop 4 were critical for leishmanal ICP interactions with papain [46], while the chagasin L6 loop with LxYxRPW was important to inhibit human cathepsin L [45]. Neither toxostatin nor falstatin have the typical first motif (NPTTG) of chagasin. Instead, toxostatin and falstatin contain a conserved element of GxGYx W(F/L) at the position of first motif. Toxostatins also lack the second motif but contain the third motif similar to the chicken cystatin and rat kininogen. The co-crystallization of chagasin with falcipain-2 [21] and NMR structure with human cathepsin L [20] confirmed the immunoglobulin folds and tripartite binding, suggesting an evolutionarily conserved scaffold [21]. We found that toxostatins were active against multiple cathepsins, including human, similar to the findings with chagasin [13] and falstatin [17], suggesting that the tripartite binding may be more important for their broad inhibitory activity than specific residues.

Based on their broad specificity, ICPs may inhibit either parasite or host cathepsins. Interestingly, chagasin [13], the leishmanial ICP [15], and falstatin [17] are down-regulated at the time of highest expression of clan CA cysteine proteinases. In contrast, mRNA for toxostatin-1 was highest in tachyzoites. Excess chagasin disrupts in vitro invasion of T. cruzi [47], while disruption of leishmanial ICP limits infection in mice [15]. Despite significant inhibition of overall cathepsin activity by the over expression of toxostatin-1, we could not demonstrate an effect on host cell invasion or parasite multiplication in vitro. This may be due to the lack of colocalization of the over expressed toxostatin-1 in the same subcellular compartments as TgCPB or L. Alternatively, toxostatin-1 may act on a host cathepsin or be involved in intracellular inhibition of TgCPL or TgCPB and not play a significant role in invasion. Further understanding of the mechanism of action of the toxostatins may not only clarify the role of TgCPL in the pathogenesis of toxoplasmosis, but may identify unique sequences, which lead to better inhibitor design.


This work was supported by NIAID (AI41093 S.R., AI35707 J.E.), the University of California University-wide AIDS Research Program (ID04-SD-079, S.R.), the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (S.R.), and the UCSD Center for AIDS Research (X.Q.). We thank Drs. Fran Gillin and Charles Davis for their helpful comments, and Ivy Hsieh for her technical EM support.


Inhibitor of Cysteine Proteinase
recombinant Toxoplasma gondii cathepsin B
Toxoplasma gondii cathepsin C
Toxoplasma gondii cathepsin L


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[shadowed white star]Note: Nucleotide sequence data reported in this paper are available in the DDBJ, EMBL and GenBank™ databases under the accession numbers EF452500, EF452501, and EU304362


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