The calpains are physiologically important Ca2+-activated regulatory proteases, which are divided into typical or atypical sub-families based on constituent domains. Both sub-families are present in mammals, but our understanding of calpain function is based primarily on typical sub-family members. Here, we take advantage of the model organism Caenorhabditis elegans, which expresses only atypical calpains, to extend our knowledge of the phylogenetic evolution and function of calpains. We provide evidence that a typical human calpain protein with a penta EF hand, detected using custom profile hidden Markov models, is conserved in ancient metazoans and a divergent clade. These analyses also provide evidence for the lineage-specific loss of typical calpain genes in C. elegans and Ciona, and they reveal that many calpain-like genes lack an intact catalytic triad. Given the association between the dysregulation of typical calpains and human degenerative pathologies, we explored the phenotypes, expression profiles, and consequences of inappropriate reduction or activation of C. elegans atypical calpains. These studies show that the atypical calpain gene, clp-1, contributes to muscle degeneration and reveal that clp-1 activity is sensitive to genetic manipulation of [Ca2+]i. We show that CLP-1 localizes to sarcomeric sub-structures, but is excluded from dense bodies (Z-disks). We find that the muscle degeneration observed in a C. elegans model of dystrophin-based muscular dystrophy can be suppressed by clp-1 inactivation and that nemadipine-A inhibition of the EGL-19 calcium channel reveals that Ca2+ dysfunction underlies the C. elegans MyoD model of myopathy. Taken together, our analyses highlight the roles of calcium dysregulation and CLP-1 in muscle myopathies and suggest that the atypical calpains could retain conserved roles in myofilament turnover.
Calpains are calcium activated non-lysosomal proteases that cleave proteins with exquisite selectivity. Proteins can be activated by calpain cleavage, because they are released from inhibitory constraints, or they can be targeted for further degradation to facilitate their normal physiological turnover or to promote cellular remodelling. Inappropriate calpain activity can lead to degenerative pathologies and cancers. Our understanding of calpain function is based primarily on typical calpains, which carry EF hand motifs that bind Ca2+ or mediate dimerization; however, typical and atypical calpains, which lack EF hand motifs, are both present in mammals. Hence, any therapeutic intervention designed to suppress degenerative conditions, particularly those caused by elevated Ca2+ levels, should also consider the potential involvement of atypical calpains. We have taken advantage of the model organism C. elegans, which only encodes atypical calpain proteins, to gain an understanding of the evolution and activities of these proteins. We show that the CLP-1 atypical calpain is normally expressed in muscle and localizes to sarcomeric sub-structures. We find that CLP-1 contributes to the muscle degeneration observed in a model of Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Our studies also highlight the importance of calcium dysregulation in promoting CLP-1 activity and muscle degeneration.