Coiled-coil-helix-coiled-coil-helix (CHCH) domains consist of two pairs of cysteine residues that are oxidized to form disulfide bonds upon mitochondrial import. Proteins containing these domains play important roles in mitochondrial ultrastructure and in the biogenesis, function, and stability of electron transport chain complexes. Interestingly, recent investigations of the Toxoplasma gondii ATP synthase identified subunits containing CHCH domains. As CHCH domain proteins have never been found in any other ATP synthase, their role in T. gondii was unclear. Using conditional gene knockdown systems, we investigated two T. gondii ATP synthase subunits containing CHCH domains: ATPTG8 and ATPTG9. We show that these two subunits are essential for the lytic cycle as well as stability and function of the ATP synthase. Further, we illustrated that their knockdown disrupts multiple aspects of mitochondrial morphology, including ultrastructure and cristae density. Mutation of key cysteine residues in the CHCH domains also caused mis-localization of the proteins. Our work suggests that these proteins likely provide structural support to the exceptionally large T. gondii ATP synthase complex and that perturbations to the structural integrity of this complex result in deleterious downstream effects on the parasite mitochondrion. These investigations add to a growing body of work focused on the divergent aspects of the apicomplexan ATP synthase, which could ultimately uncover novel drug targets. IMPORTANCE Members of the coiled-coil-helix-coiled-coil-helix (CHCH) domain protein family are transported into the mitochondrial intermembrane space, where they play important roles in the biogenesis and function of the organelle. Unexpectedly, the ATP synthase of the apicomplexan Toxoplasma gondii harbors CHCH domain-containing subunits of unknown function. As no other ATP synthase studied to date contains this class of proteins, characterizing their function will be of broad interest to the fields of molecular parasitology and mitochondrial evolution. Here, we demonstrate that that two T. gondii ATP synthase subunits containing CHCH domains are required for parasite survival and for stability and function of the ATP synthase. We also show that knockdown disrupts multiple aspects of the mitochondrial morphology of T. gondii and that mutation of key residues in the CHCH domains caused mis-localization of the proteins. This work provides insight into the unique features of the apicomplexan ATP synthase, which could help to develop therapeutic interventions against this parasite and other apicomplexans, such as the malaria-causing parasite Plasmodium falciparum.
Apicomplexan parasites are a group of protists that cause disease in humans and include pathogens like Plasmodium spp., the causative agent of malaria, and Toxoplasma gondii, the etiological agent of toxoplasmosis and one of the most ubiquitous human parasites in the world. Membrane contact sites (MCSs) are widespread structures within eukaryotic cells but their characterization in apicomplexan parasites is only in its very beginnings. Basic biological features of the T. gondii parasitic cycle support numerous organellar interactions, including the transfer of Ca2+ and metabolites between different compartments. In T. gondii, Ca2+ signals precede a series of interrelated molecular processes occurring in a coordinated manner that culminate in the stimulation of key steps of the parasite life cycle. Calcium transfer from the endoplasmic reticulum to other organelles via MCSs would explain the precision, speed, and efficiency that is needed during the lytic cycle of T. gondii. In this short review, we discuss the implications of these structures in cellular signaling, with an emphasis on their potential role in Ca2+ signaling.
The mitochondrial respiratory chain is an essential pathway in most studied eukaryotes due to its roles in respiration and other pathways that depend on mitochondrial membrane potential. Apicomplexans are unicellular eukaryotes whose members have an impact on global health. The respiratory chain is a drug target for some members of this group, notably the malaria-causing Plasmodium spp. This has motivated studies of the respiratory chain in apicomplexan parasites, primarily Toxoplasma gondii and Plasmodium spp. for which experimental tools are most advanced. Studies of the respiratory complexes in these organisms revealed numerous novel features, including expansion of complex size. The divergence of apicomplexan mitochondria from commonly studied models highlights the diversity of mitochondrial form and function across eukaryotic life.
Diego Huet co-authored an editorial on the research topic disruptive technologies for the study of host-pathogen interactions in Frontiers.
Toxoplasma gondii is a member of the apicomplexan phylum, a group of single-celled eukaryotic parasites that cause significant human morbidity and mortality around the world. T. gondii harbors two organelles of endosymbiotic origin: a non-photosynthetic plastid, known as the apicoplast, and a single mitochondrion derived from the ancient engulfment of an α-proteobacterium. Due to excitement surrounding the novelty of the apicoplast, the T. gondii mitochondrion was, to a certain extent, overlooked for about two decades. However, recent work has illustrated that the mitochondrion is an essential hub of apicomplexan-specific biology. Development of novel techniques, such as cryo-electron microscopy, complexome profiling, and next-generation sequencing have led to a renaissance in mitochondrial studies. This review will cover what is currently known about key features of the T. gondii mitochondrion, ranging from its genome to protein import machinery and biochemical pathways. Particular focus will be given to mitochondrial features that diverge significantly from the mammalian host, along with discussion of this important organelle as a drug target.
Megna Tiwari is a second-year Ph.D. trainee in the laboratory of Diego Huet. She is originally from Newport Beach, California and completed her undergraduate degree in Cell, Molecular and Developmental Biology at the University of California, Riverside (UCR). While at UCR, she worked as an undergraduate researcher in the fungal genomics lab of Dr. Jason Stajich for 2 years and co-founded Women in STEM Engaging Riverside (WISER). After graduation, she worked as a blood bank lab technician at LifeStream Blood Bank where she screened for and routinely found blood samples positive for understudied pathogenic parasites. Her fascination with pathogenic parasites led her to seek a thesis-based Master of Science in Biology at California State University, Fullerton under the supervision of Dr. Veronica Jimenez. During this period, Megna worked on understanding the functional and structural relationship of mechanosensitive ion channels found in T. cruzi and cemented her passion for molecular parasitology.
Megna has been awarded a CTEGD T32 Training Fellowship. She currently serves as Vice-president of CTEGD’s Graduate Student Association and New Student Liaison for the Department of Cellular Biology’s Graduate Student Association.
Why did you choose UGA?
My master’s research in parasitology reaffirmed my passion for research in unconventional parasitic pathogens. Therefore, I applied for doctoral programs that would allow me to remain in the field of cell and molecular parasitology and the CTEGD at UGA was the perfect place for me to obtain the best possible training as a parasitologist.
What is your research focus/project and why are you interested in the topic?
The over-reaching research goal of the Huet lab is the investigation of the highly divergent metabolic adaptations of apicomplexans. My research interests in the lab have led me to study the role of the ATP synthase in the apicomplexan Toxoplasma gondii, the causative agent of toxoplasmosis. For my project, I am examining the role of apicomplexan-specific ATP synthase subunits and how they might contribute to the regulation of the ATP synthase function in the parasite.
What are your future professional plans?
Following graduation from UGA, I hope to continue on for a postdoctoral research position in parasitology.
What do you hope to do for your capstone experience?
For my capstone experience, I want to gain an outside perspective and understanding of foreign research culture that I can apply to my own research when I return to the CTEGD.
What is your favorite thing about UGA and/or Athens?
At the CTEGD, I love the collaborative nature. If I am trying to learn a new technique or understand new concepts, I am able to easily walk down the hall to a neighboring lab and get advice. In Athens, for entertainment, I love the endless craft beer scene and I love all the greenery and being able to hike gaps of the Appalachian trail!
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Diego Huet studies the organelles involved in the metabolic adaptations of the apicomplexan parasite Toxoplasma gondii. In this mSphere of Influence article, he reflects on how the paper “Absolute quantification of matrix metabolites reveals the dynamics of mitochondrial metabolism” by Chen et al. (W. W. Chen, E. Freinkman, T. Wang, K. Birsoy, and D. M. Sabatini, Cell 166:1324–1337.e11, 2016, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cell.2016.07.040) shaped his research by providing an approach for rapidly and specifically isolating mitochondria to probe the metabolism of these organelles.