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Treatment for schistosomiasis, which is responsible for more than 280,000 deaths annually, depends exclusively on the use of praziquantel. Millions of people are treated annually with praziquantel and drug resistant parasites are likely to evolve. In order to identify novel drug targets the Schistosoma mansoni sequence databases were queried for proteins involved in glutathione metabolism. One potential target identified was phytochelatin synthase (PCS). Phytochelatins are oligopeptides synthesized enzymatically from glutathione by PCS that sequester toxic heavy metals in many organisms. However, humans do not have a PCS gene and do not synthesize phytochelatins. In this study we have characterized the PCS of S. mansoni (SmPCS). The conserved catalytic triad of cysteine-histidine-aspartate found in PCS proteins and cysteine proteases is also found in SmPCS, as are several cysteine residues thought to be involved in heavy metal binding and enzyme activation. The SmPCS open reading frame is considerably extended at both the N- and C-termini compared to PCS from other organisms. Multiple PCS transcripts are produced from the single encoded gene by alternative splicing, resulting in both mitochondrial and cytoplasmic protein variants. Expression of SmPCS in yeast increased cadmium tolerance from less than 50 mM to more than 1,000 mM. We confirmed the function of SmPCS by identifying PCs in yeast cell extracts using HPLC-mass spectrometry. SmPCS was found to be expressed in all mammalian stages of worm development investigated. Increases in SmPCS expression were seen in ex vivo worms cultured in the presence of iron, copper, cadmium, or zinc. Collectively, these results indicate that SmPCS plays an important role in schistosome response to heavy metals and that PCS is a potential drug target for schistosomiasis treatment. This is the first characterization of a PCS from a parasitic organism.


Originally published in PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases by the Public Library of Science.