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J Biol Chem. 2005 Feb 4;280(5):3847-61. Epub 2004 Nov 22.

Molecular characterization, expression, and in vivo analysis of LmexCht1: the chitinase of the human pathogen, Leishmania mexicana.

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  • 1Cell Biology Section, Laboratory of Parasitic Diseases, NIAID, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland 20892-0425, USA.


Chitinases have been implicated to be of importance in the life cycle development and transmission of a variety of parasitic organisms. Using a molecular approach, we identified and characterized the structure of a single copy LmexCht1-chitinase gene from the primitive trypanosomatid pathogen of humans, Leishmania mexicana. The LmexCht1 encodes an approximately 50 kDa protein, with well conserved substrate binding and catalytic domains characteristic of members of the chitinase-18 protein family. Further, we showed that LmexCht1 mRNA is constitutively expressed by both the insect vector (i.e. promastigote) and mammalian (i.e. amastigote) life cycle developmental forms of this protozoan parasite. Interestingly, however, amastigotes were found to secrete/release approximately >2-4-fold higher levels of chitinase activity during their growth in vitro than promastigotes. Moreover, a homologous episomal expression system was devised and used to express an epitope-tagged LmexCht1 chimeric construct in these parasites. Expression of the LmexCht1 chimera was verified in these transfectants by reverse transcription-PCR, Western blots, and indirect immunofluorescence analyses. Further, results of coupled immunoprecipitation/enzyme activity experiments demonstrated that the LmexCht1 chimeric protein was secreted/released by these transfected L. mexicana parasites and that it possessed functional chitinase enzyme activity. Such transfectants were also evaluated for their infectivity both in human macrophages in vitro and in two different strains of mice. Results of those experiments demonstrated that the LmexCht1 transfectants survived significantly better in human macrophages and also produced significantly larger lesions in mice than control parasites. Taken together, our results indicate that the LmexCht1-chimera afforded a definitive survival advantage to the parasite within these mammalian hosts. Thus, the LmexCht1 could potentially represent a new virulence determinant in the mammalian phase of this important human pathogen.

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