Calpains of Leishmania braziliensis: genome analysis, differential expression, and functional analysis

BACKGROUND Calpains are proteins belonging to the multi-gene family of calcium-dependent cysteine peptidases that undergo tight on/off regulation, and uncontrolled proteolysis of calpains is associated with severe human pathologies. Calpain orthologues are expanded and diversified in the trypanosomatids genome. OBJECTIVES Here, we characterised calpains in Leishmania braziliensis, the main causative agent of cutaneous leishmaniasis in Brazil. METHODS/FINDINGS In total, 34 predicted calpain-like genes were identified. After domain structure evaluation, reverse transcription-quantitative polymerase chain reaction (RT-qPCR) during in vitro metacyclogenesis revealed (i) five genes with enhanced expression in the procyclic stage, (ii) one augmented gene in the metacyclic stage, and (iii) one procyclic-exclusive transcript. Western blot analysis revealed that an antibody against a consensus-conserved peptide reacted with multiple calpain-like proteins, which is consistent with the multi-gene family characteristic. Flow cytometry and immunocytochemistry analyses revealed the presence of calpain-like molecules mainly in the cytoplasm, to a lesser extent in the plasma membrane, and negligible levels in the nucleus, which are all consistent with calpain localisation. Eventually, the calpain inhibitor MDL28170 was used for functional studies revealing (i) a leishmaniostatic effect, (ii) a reduction in the association index in mouse macrophages, (iii) ultra-structural alterations conceivable with autophagy, and (iv) an enhanced expression of the virulence factor GP63. CONCLUSION This report adds novel insights into the domain structure, expression, and localisation of L. braziliensis calpain-like molecules.