Metacaspases (MCAs) are distant orthologues of caspases and have been proposed to play a role in programmed cell death in yeast and plants, but little is known about their function in parasitic protozoa. The MCA gene of Leishmania major (LmjMCA) is expressed in actively replicating amastigotes and procyclic promastigotes, but at a lower level in metacyclic promastigotes. LmjMCA has a punctate distribution throughout the cell in interphase cells, but becomes concentrated in the kinetoplast (mitochondrial DNA) at the time of the organelle's segregation. LmjMCA also translocates to the nucleus during mitosis, where it associates with the mitotic spindle. Overexpression of LmjMCA in promastigotes leads to a severe growth retardation and changes in ploidy, due to defects in kinetoplast segregation and nuclear division and an impairment of cytokinesis. LmjMCA null mutants could not be generated and following genetic manipulation to express LmjMCA from an episome, the only mutants that were viable were those expressing LmjMCA at physiological levels. Together these data suggest that in L. major active LmjMCA is essential for the correct segregation of the nucleus and kinetoplast, functions that could be independent of programmed cell death, and that the amount of LmjMCA is crucial. The absence of MCAs from mammals makes the enzyme a potential drug target against protozoan parasites.
- cell cycle
- programmed cell death