Cysteine proteases belonging to the falcipain (FP) family play a pivotal role in the biology of malaria parasites and have been extensively investigated as potential antimalarial drug targets. Three paralogous FP-family cysteine proteases of Plasmodium malariae
, termed malapains 2–4 (MP2–4), were identified in PlasmoDB. The three MPs share similar structural properties with the FP-2/FP-3 subfamily enzymes and exhibit a close phylogenetic lineage with vivapains (VXs) and knowpains (KPs), FP orthologues of P. vivax
and P. knowlesi
. Recombinant MP-2 and MP-4 were produced in a bacterial expression system, and their biochemical properties were characterized. Both recombinant MP-2 and MP-4 showed enzyme activity across a broad range of pH values with an optimum activity at pH 5.0 and relative stability at neutral pHs. Similar to the FP-2/FP-3 subfamily enzymes in other Plasmodium
species, recombinant MP-2 and MP-4 effectively hydrolyzed hemoglobin at acidic pHs. They also degraded erythrocyte cytoskeletal proteins, such as spectrin and band 3, at a neutral pH. These results imply that MP-2 and MP-4 are redundant hemoglobinases of P. malariae
and may also participate in merozoite egression by degrading erythrocyte cytoskeletal proteins. However, compared with other FP-2/FP-3 enzymes, MP-2 showed a strong preference for arginine at the P2 position. Meanwhile, MP-4 showed a primary preference for leucine at the P2 position but a partial preference for phenylalanine. These different substrate preferences of MPs underscore careful consideration in the design of optimized inhibitors targeting the FP-family cysteine proteases of human malaria parasites.
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