Research Article: Toxoplasma gondii Relies on Both Host and Parasite Isoprenoids and Can Be Rendered Sensitive to Atorvastatin

Date Published: October 17, 2013

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Zhu-Hong Li, Srinivasan Ramakrishnan, Boris Striepen, Silvia N. J. Moreno, Ira J. Blader.


Intracellular pathogens have complex metabolic interactions with their host cells to ensure a steady supply of energy and anabolic building blocks for rapid growth. Here we use the obligate intracellular parasite Toxoplasma gondii to probe this interaction for isoprenoids, abundant lipidic compounds essential to many cellular processes including signaling, trafficking, energy metabolism, and protein translation. Synthesis of precursors for isoprenoids in Apicomplexa occurs in the apicoplast and is essential. To synthesize longer isoprenoids from these precursors, T. gondii expresses a bifunctional farnesyl diphosphate/geranylgeranyl diphosphate synthase (TgFPPS). In this work we construct and characterize T. gondii null mutants for this enzyme. Surprisingly, these mutants have only a mild growth phenotype and an isoprenoid composition similar to wild type parasites. However, when extracellular, the loss of the enzyme becomes phenotypically apparent. This strongly suggests that intracellular parasite salvage FPP and/or geranylgeranyl diphosphate (GGPP) from the host. We test this hypothesis using inhibitors of host cell isoprenoid synthesis. Mammals use the mevalonate pathway, which is susceptible to statins. We document strong synergy between statin treatment and pharmacological or genetic interference with the parasite isoprenoid pathway. Mice can be cured with atorvastatin (Lipitor) from a lethal infection with the TgFPPs mutant. We propose a double-hit strategy combining inhibitors of host and parasite pathways as a novel therapeutic approach against Apicomplexan parasites.

Partial Text

Toxoplasma gondii is an important intracellular pathogen causing disease in humans and animals. Most human infections are uncomplicated but the parasite persists and the chronic infection can be reactivated upon immunosuppression in patients undergoing organ transplants, cancer chemotherapy [1], or AIDS due to HIV infection [2]. During pregnancy, infection causes congenital toxoplasmosis with serious consequences to the fetus [3]. There is also growing concern about outbreaks of severe ocular disease due to T. gondii in immunocompetent patients [4]. The parasite masterfully manipulates its host cell to insure favorable conditions for its survival and replication. T. gondii infection results in differential regulation of a variety of host signaling and metabolic pathways [5]. Many of these host changes are still not completely understood but it is quite likely that such modification of host pathways is essential for parasite growth and survival.

Our work reveals a crucial metabolic interaction between the intracellular pathogen T. gondii and its host cell to secure the parasite’s access to isoprenoids. Isoprenoids are essential for all cells and in most Apicomplexans their five carbon precursors are produced by the apicoplast [30], [31]. The synthesis of these precursors is now viewed as the most important function of the apicoplast and the reason the organelle was maintained long after the loss of photosynthesis [32]. Genetic analysis in T. gondii demonstrates that loss of the apicoplast isoprenoid pathway is lethal and mimics complete loss of apicoplast metabolism [7], [14]. Inhibiting this pathway with the antibiotic fosmidomycin is effective against Plasmodium, Babesia, and against Toxoplasma (once parasites are engineered to take up the drug) [7], [33], [34]. Most intriguingly, in Plasmodium falciparum cells cured of their apicoplasts by antibiotic treatment targeting plastid translation can nonetheless be continuously maintained in culture when the media are supplemented with high concentrations of IPP [35]. Overall these studies suggest that the synthesis of IPP and DMAPP by the parasite is essential and cannot be circumvented by salvage from the host under physiological conditions.




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