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Tag: Silvia Moreno

Two CTEGD trainees receive AHA fellowships

Photos of Graduate student Baihetiya “Barna” Baierna and postdoctoral fellow Mayara Bertolini
Graduate student Baihetiya “Barna” Baierna and postdoctoral fellow Mayara Bertolini received fellowships from the American Heart Association, supporting their research and education. Both are studying parasites in the University of Georgia’s Center for Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases. (Photos courtesy of CTEGD)


Baihetiya “Barna” Baierna, a cellular biology graduate student in Silvia Moreno’s laboratory, received an American Heart Association Pre-doctoral Fellowship. It will fund her training for the next two years as she studies the mitochondrion of Toxoplasma gondii.

Baierna grew up wanting to follow in her mother’s footsteps as a scientist.

“My mom worked for the regional CDC in China and I was interested in science since a young age,” Baierna said.

After completing her undergraduate degree in biochemistry, she was sure she wanted to continue her training in graduate school. After being accepted into the Department of Cellular Biology program, she joined the Moreno Laboratory.

Toxoplasma gondii infects approximately one third of the world human population. The infection can cause serious complications in people with a suppressed immune system. Baierna’s research aims at validating novel T. gondii mitochondrial proteins as novel chemotherapeutic targets for improved chemotherapy of toxoplasmosis. This is important because the present drugs are not effective against the chronic stages of the infection. She has developed novel strategies for the discovery of new mitochondrial proteins and already found a novel enzymatic activity highly divergent from the mammalian counterpart. The outcome of this project will expand the knowledge of the T. gondii mitochondrion, as well as helping with the identification of viable drug targets.

“An AHA Fellowship is a very competitive award, but Barna deserves it and we are very proud of her,” said Moreno.

“Preparing the grant proposal was a great learning experience and it will help me with my career development,” said Baierna, “I’m very happy that it was funded.”

Mayara Bertolini, a post-doctoral fellow in Roberto Docampo’s laboratory, received an American Heart Association Post-doctoral Fellowship. It will support her training for one year.

After receiving her bachelor’s degree, Bertolini obtained her master’s degree in a lab that Docampo had set up in Brazil working on T. cruzi. From there she decided to pursue her Ph.D. at the University of Georgia. She completed her Ph.D. in 2023.

Trypanosoma cruzi is the parasite that causes Chagas disease. At least 6 million people, mostly in South America, are infected with the parasite. T. cruzi is transmitted to humans through the feces of an insect commonly referred to as the kissing bug. While Chagas disease was first discovered in 1909, there is still a lot that is unknown about the biology of T. cruzi. This lack of knowledge has hindered drug development. Bertolini’s project is focused on the role of polyphosphate during the Trypanosoma cruzi life cycle.

“This is the second fellowship from the AHA that Mayara has received. She got a two-year pre-doctoral fellowship before and has done outstanding work,” said Docampo.

“AHA Fellowships are very competitive and I’m thrilled my proposal was selected,” said Bertolini. “In addition to supporting my training, there is support for career development and networking opportunities.”


The story originally appeared at

Regulation of Calcium entry by cyclic GMP signaling in Toxoplasma gondii

Figure 1. Calcium entry through the plasma membrane of extracellular T. gondii tachyzoites.
Figure 1. Calcium entry through the plasma membrane of extracellular T. gondii tachyzoites.


Ca2+ signaling impacts almost every aspect of cellular life. Ca2+ signals are generated through the opening of ion channels that permit the flow of Ca2+ down an electrochemical gradient. Cytosolic Ca2+ fluctuations can be generated through Ca2+ entry from the extracellular milieu or release from intracellular stores. In Toxoplasma gondii, Ca2+ ions play critical roles in several essential functions for the parasite like invasion of host cells, motility and egress. Plasma membrane Ca2+ entry in T. gondii was previously shown to be activated by cytosolic calcium and inhibited by the voltage-operated Ca2+ channel blocker nifedipine. However, Ca2+ entry in T. gondii did not show the classical characteristics of store regulation. In this work, we characterized the mechanism by which cytosolic Ca2+ regulates plasma membrane Ca2+ entry in extracellular T. gondii tachyzoites loaded with the Ca2+ indicator Fura 2. We compared the inhibition by nifedipine with the effect of the broad spectrum TRP channel inhibitor, anthranilic acid or ACA and we find that both inhibitors act on different Ca2+ entry activities. We demonstrate, using pharmacological and genetic tools, that an intracellular signaling pathway engaging cyclicGMP (cGMP), protein kinase G (PKG), Ca2+ and the phosphatidyl inositol phospholipase C (PI-PLC) affects Ca2+ entry and we present a model for crosstalk between cGMP and cytosolic Ca2+ for the activation of T. gondii‘s lytic cycle traits.

Miryam A Hortua Triana, Karla M Márquez-Nogueras, Mojtaba Sedigh Fazli, Shannon Quinn, Silvia N J Moreno. J Biol Chem. 2024 Feb 19:105771. doi: 10.1016/j.jbc.2024.105771

Interorganellar Communication Through Membrane Contact Sites in Toxoplasma gondii

Figure 1. Reported and potential MCSs between organelles of Toxoplasma gondii. Schematic representation showing proteins recently reported to be involved in MCSs, along with putative MCS candidates (indicated with “?”). For clarity purposes, only the central part of the parasite is shown. Abbreviations: AP, apicoplast; ER, endoplasmic reticulum; PLVAC, plant-like vacuolar compartment; IMC, inner membrane complex; TgTPC, T. gondii two pore channel; VDAC, voltage-dependent anion channel; LMF1, lasso maintenance factor 1.; MCS, membrane contact site.
Figure 1. Reported and potential MCSs between organelles of Toxoplasma gondii. Schematic representation showing proteins recently reported to be involved in MCSs, along with putative MCS candidates (indicated with “?”). For clarity purposes, only the central part of the parasite is shown. Abbreviations: AP, apicoplast; ER, endoplasmic reticulum; PLVAC, plant-like vacuolar compartment; IMC, inner membrane complex; TgTPC, T. gondii two pore channel; VDAC, voltage-dependent anion channel; LMF1, lasso maintenance factor 1.; MCS, membrane contact site.


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.

Diego Huet, Silvia N J Moreno. Contact (Thousand Oaks). 2023 Aug 6;6:25152564231189064. doi: 10.1177/25152564231189064. eCollection 2023 Jan-Dec.

Analysis of the Interactome of the Toxoplasma gondii Tgj1 HSP40 Chaperone

Toxoplasma gondii is an obligate intracellular apicomplexan that causes toxoplasmosis in humans and animals. Central to its dissemination and pathogenicity is the ability to rapidly divide in the tachyzoite stage and infect any type of nucleated cell. Adaptation to different cell contexts requires high plasticity in which heat shock proteins (Hsps) could play a fundamental role. Tgj1 is a type I Hsp40 of T. gondii, an ortholog of the DNAJA1 group, which is essential during the tachyzoite lytic cycle. Tgj1 consists of a J-domain, ZFD, and DNAJ_C domains with a CRQQ C-terminal motif, which is usually prone to lipidation. Tgj1 presented a mostly cytosolic subcellular localization overlapping partially with endoplasmic reticulum. Protein-protein Interaction (PPI) analysis showed that Tgj1 could be implicated in various biological pathways, mainly translation, protein folding, energy metabolism, membrane transport and protein translocation, invasion/pathogenesis, cell signaling, chromatin and transcription regulation, and cell redox homeostasis among others. The combination of Tgj1 and Hsp90 PPIs retrieved only 70 interactors linked to the Tgj1-Hsp90 axis, suggesting that Tgj1 would present specific functions in addition to those of the Hsp70/Hsp90 cycle, standing out invasion/pathogenesis, cell shape motility, and energy pathway. Within the Hsp70/Hsp90 cycle, translation-associated pathways, cell redox homeostasis, and protein folding were highly enriched in the Tgj1-Hsp90 axis. In conclusion, Tgj1 would interact with a wide range of proteins from different biological pathways, which could suggest a relevant role in them.

Jonathan Munera López, Andrés Mariano Alonso, Maria Julia Figueras, Ana María Saldarriaga Cartagena, Miryam A Hortua Triana, Luis Diambra, Laura Vanagas, Bin Deng, Silvia N J Moreno, Sergio Oscar Angel. Proteomes. 2023 Mar 1;11(1):9. doi: 10.3390/proteomes11010009.

The Toxoplasma Plant-Like Vacuolar Compartment (PLVAC)

Toxoplasma gondii belongs to the phylum Apicomplexa and is an important cause of congenital disease and infection in immunocompromised patients. T. gondii shares several characteristics with plants including a non-photosynthetic plastid termed apicoplast and a multi-vesicular organelle that was named the plant-like vacuole (PLV) or vacuolar compartment (VAC). The name plant-like vacuole was selected based on its resemblance in composition and function to plant vacuoles. The name VAC represents its general vacuolar characteristics. We will refer to the organelle as PLVAC in this review. New findings in recent years have revealed that the PLVAC represents the lysosomal compartment of T. gondii which has adapted peculiarities to fulfill specific Toxoplasma needs. In this review, we discuss the composition and functions of the PLVAC highlighting its roles in ion storage and homeostasis, endocytosis, exocytosis, and autophagy.

Andrew J Stasic, Silvia N J Moreno, Vern B Carruthers, Zhicheng Dou. J Eukaryot Microbiol. 2022 Oct 11;e12951. doi: 10.1111/jeu.12951.

The Heptaprenyl Diphosphate Synthase (Coq1) Is the Target of a Lipophilic Bisphosphonate That Protects Mice against Toxoplasma gondii Infection

Prenyldiphosphate synthases catalyze the reaction of allylic diphosphates with one or more isopentenyl diphosphate molecules to form compounds such as farnesyl diphosphate, used in, e.g., sterol biosynthesis and protein prenylation, as well as longer “polyprenyl” diphosphates, used in ubiquinone and menaquinone biosynthesis. Quinones play an essential role in electron transport and are associated with the inner mitochondrial membrane due to the presence of the polyprenyl group. In this work, we investigated the synthesis of the polyprenyl diphosphate that alkylates the ubiquinone ring precursor in Toxoplasma gondii, an opportunistic pathogen that causes serious disease in immunocompromised patients and the unborn fetus. The enzyme that catalyzes this early step of the ubiquinone synthesis is Coq1 (TgCoq1), and we show that it produces the C35 species heptaprenyl diphosphate. TgCoq1 localizes to the mitochondrion and is essential for in vitro T. gondii growth. We demonstrate that the growth defect of a T. gondii TgCoq1 mutant is rescued by complementation with a homologous TgCoq1 gene or with a (C45) solanesyl diphosphate synthase from Trypanosoma cruzi (TcSPPS). We find that a lipophilic bisphosphonate (BPH-1218) inhibits T. gondii growth at low-nanomolar concentrations, while overexpression of the TgCoq1 enzyme dramatically reduced growth inhibition by the bisphosphonate. Both the severe growth defect of the mutant and the inhibition by BPH-1218 were rescued by supplementation with a long-chain (C30) ubiquinone (UQ6). Importantly, BPH-1218 also protected mice against a lethal T. gondii infection. TgCoq1 thus represents a potential drug target that could be exploited for improved chemotherapy of toxoplasmosis.

IMPORTANCE Millions of people are infected with Toxoplasma gondii, and the available treatment for toxoplasmosis is not ideal. Most of the drugs currently used are only effective for the acute infection, and treatment can trigger serious side effects requiring changes in the therapeutic approach. There is, therefore, a compelling need for safe and effective treatments for toxoplasmosis. In this work, we characterize an enzyme of the mitochondrion of T. gondii that can be inhibited by an isoprenoid pathway inhibitor. We present evidence that demonstrates that inhibition of the enzyme is linked to parasite death. In addition, the inhibitor can protect mice against a lethal dose of T. gondii. Our results thus reveal a promising chemotherapeutic target for the development of new medicines for toxoplasmosis.

Melissa A Sleda, Zhu-Hong Li, Ranjan Behera, Baihetiya Baierna, Catherine Li, Jomkwan Jumpathong, Satish R Malwal, Makoto Kawamukai, Eric Oldfield, Silvia N J Moreno. mBio. 2022 Sep 21;e0196622. doi: 10.1128/mbio.01966-22.

Temporal and thermal profiling of the Toxoplasma proteome implicates parasite Protein Phosphatase 1 in the regulation of Ca 2+-responsive pathways

Apicomplexan parasites cause persistent mortality and morbidity worldwide through diseases including malaria, toxoplasmosis, and cryptosporidiosis. Ca2+ signaling pathways have been repurposed in these eukaryotic pathogens to regulate parasite-specific cellular processes governing the replicative and lytic phases of the infectious cycle, as well as the transition between them. Despite the presence of conserved Ca2+-responsive proteins, little is known about how specific signaling elements interact to impact pathogenesis. We mapped the Ca2+-responsive proteome of the model apicomplexan T. gondii via time-resolved phosphoproteomics and thermal proteome profiling. The waves of phosphoregulation following PKG activation and stimulated Ca2+ release corroborate known physiological changes but identify specific proteins operating in these pathways. Thermal profiling of parasite extracts identified many expected Ca2+-responsive proteins, such as parasite Ca2+-dependent protein kinases. Our approach also identified numerous Ca2+-responsive proteins that are not predicted to bind Ca2+, yet are critical components of the parasite signaling network. We characterized protein phosphatase 1 (PP1) as a Ca2+-responsive enzyme that relocalized to the parasite apex upon Ca2+ store release. Conditional depletion of PP1 revealed that the phosphatase regulates Ca2+ uptake to promote parasite motility. PP1 may thus be partly responsible for Ca2+-regulated serine/threonine phosphatase activity in apicomplexan parasites.

Alice L Herneisen, Zhu-Hong Li, Alex W Chan, Silvia N J Moreno, Sebastian Lourido. Elife. 2022 Aug 17;11:e80336. doi: 10.7554/eLife.80336.

In Vivo Efficacy of SQ109 against Leishmania donovani, Trypanosoma spp. and Toxoplasma gondii and In Vitro Activity of SQ109 Metabolites

SQ109 is an anti-tubercular drug candidate that has completed Phase IIb/III clinical trials for tuberculosis and has also been shown to exhibit potent in vitro efficacy against protozoan parasites including Leishmania and Trypanosoma cruzi spp. However, its in vivo efficacy against protozoa has not been reported. Here, we evaluated the activity of SQ109 in mouse models of Leishmania, Trypanosoma spp. as well as Toxoplasma infection. In the T. cruzi mouse model, 80% of SQ109-treated mice survived at 40 days post-infection. Even though SQ109 did not cure all mice, these results are of interest since they provide a basis for future testing of combination therapies with the azole posaconazole, which acts synergistically with SQ109 in vitro. We also found that SQ109 inhibited the growth of Toxoplasma gondii in vitro with an IC50 of 1.82 µM and there was an 80% survival in mice treated with SQ109, whereas all untreated animals died 10 days post-infection. Results with Trypanosoma brucei and Leishmania donovani infected mice were not promising with only moderate efficacy. Since SQ109 is known to be extensively metabolized in animals, we investigated the activity in vitro of SQ109 metabolites. Among 16 metabolites, six mono-oxygenated forms were found active across the tested protozoan parasites, and there was a ~6× average decrease in activity of the metabolites as compared to SQ109 which is smaller than the ~25× found with mycobacteria.

Kyung-Hwa Baek, Trong-Nhat Phan, Satish R Malwal, Hyeryon Lee, Zhu-Hong Li, Silvia N J Moreno, Eric Oldfield, Joo Hwan No. Biomedicines. 2022 Mar 14;10(3):670. doi: 10.3390/biomedicines10030670.

Toxoplasma bradyzoites exhibit physiological plasticity of calcium and energy stores controlling motility and egress

Toxoplasma gondii has evolved different developmental stages for disseminating during acute infection (i.e. tachyzoites) and for establishing chronic infection (i.e. bradyzoites). Calcium ion (Ca2+) signaling tightly regulates the lytic cycle of tachyzoites by controlling microneme secretion and motility to drive egress and cell invasion. However, the roles of Ca2+ signaling pathways in bradyzoites remain largely unexplored. Here we show that Ca2+ responses are highly restricted in bradyzoites and that they fail to egress in response to agonists. Development of dual-reporter parasites revealed dampened Ca2+ responses and minimal microneme secretion by bradyzoites induced in vitro or harvested from infected mice and tested ex vivo. Ratiometric Ca2+ imaging demonstrated lower Ca2+ basal levels, reduced magnitude, and slower Ca2+ kinetics in bradyzoites compared with tachyzoites stimulated with agonists. Diminished responses in bradyzoites were associated with down-regulation of Ca2+-ATPases involved in intracellular Ca2+ storage in the endoplasmic reticulum (ER) and acidocalcisomes. Once liberated from cysts by trypsin digestion, bradyzoites incubated in glucose plus Ca2+ rapidly restored their intracellular Ca2+ and ATP stores leading to enhanced gliding. Collectively, our findings indicate that intracellular bradyzoites exhibit dampened Ca2+ signaling and lower energy levels that restrict egress, and yet upon release they rapidly respond to changes in the environment to regain motility.

Yong Fu, Kevin M Brown, Nathaniel G Jones, Silvia Nj Moreno, L David Sibley. Elife. 2021 Dec 3;10:e73011. doi: 10.7554/eLife.73011.

A plastid two-pore channel essential for inter-organelle communication and growth of Toxoplasma gondii

Two-pore channels (TPCs) are a ubiquitous family of cation channels that localize to acidic organelles in animals and plants to regulate numerous Ca2+-dependent events. Little is known about TPCs in unicellular organisms despite their ancient origins. Here, we characterize a TPC from Toxoplasma gondii, the causative agent of toxoplasmosis. TgTPC is a member of a novel clad of TPCs in Apicomplexa, distinct from previously identified TPCs and only present in coccidians. We show that TgTPC localizes not to acidic organelles but to the apicoplast, a non-photosynthetic plastid found in most apicomplexan parasites. Conditional silencing of TgTPC resulted in progressive loss of apicoplast integrity, severely affecting growth and the lytic cycle. Isolation of TPC null mutants revealed a selective role for TPCs in replication independent of apicoplast loss that required conserved residues within the pore-lining region. Using a genetically-encoded Ca2+ indicator targeted to the apicoplast, we show that Ca2+ signals deriving from the ER but not from the extracellular space are selectively transmitted to the lumen. Deletion of the TgTPC gene caused reduced apicoplast Ca2+ uptake and membrane contact site formation between the apicoplast and the ER. Fundamental roles for TPCs in maintaining organelle integrity, inter-organelle communication and growth emerge.

Zhu-Hong Li, Thayer P King, Lawrence Ayong, Beejan Asady, Xinjiang Cai, Taufiq Rahman, Stephen A Vella, Isabelle Coppens, Sandip Patel, Silvia N J Moreno. Nat Commun. 2021 Oct 4;12(1):5802. doi: 10.1038/s41467-021-25987-5