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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2004 Mar 30;101(13):4384-9. Epub 2004 Mar 15.

Gene disruption confirms a critical role for the cysteine protease falcipain-2 in hemoglobin hydrolysis by Plasmodium falciparum.

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  • 1Department of Medicine, San Francisco General Hospital, University of California, San Francisco, CA 94143, USA.


Erythrocytic malaria parasites degrade hemoglobin in an acidic food vacuole to acquire free amino acids and maintain parasite homeostasis. Hemoglobin hydrolysis appears to be a cooperative process requiring cysteine proteases (falcipains) and aspartic proteases (plasmepsins), but the specific roles of different enzymes in this process are unknown. We previously showed that falcipain-2 is a major trophozoite food vacuole cysteine protease. To characterize the specific role of falcipain-2, we disrupted the falcipain-2 gene and assessed the effect of this alteration. Falcipain-2-knockout trophozoites had markedly diminished cysteine protease activity and swollen, dark staining food vacuoles, consistent with a block in hemoglobin hydrolysis, as caused by cysteine protease inhibitors. However, more mature stages of knockout parasites were indistinguishable from wild-type parasites and developed normally. The knockout parasites had decreased and delayed expression of falcipain-2, which appeared to be directed by increased transcription of a second copy of the gene (falcipain-2'). Expression of other falcipains and plasmepsins was similar in wild-type and knockout parasites. Compared with wild-type, knockout parasites were about 3 times more sensitive to the cysteine protease inhibitors E-64 and leupeptin, and over 50-fold more sensitive to the aspartic protease inhibitor pepstatin. Our results assign a specific function for falcipain-2, the hydrolysis of hemoglobin in trophozoites. In addition, they highlight the cooperative action of cysteine and aspartic proteases in hemoglobin degradation by malaria parasites.

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