Background: The phylum Apicomplexa is an early-branching eukaryotic lineage that contains a number of important human and animal pathogens. Their complex life cycles and unique cytoskeletal features distinguish them from other model eukaryotes. Apicomplexans rely on actin-based motility for cell invasion, yet the regulation of this system remains largely unknown. Consequently, we focused our efforts on identifying actin-related proteins in the recently completed genomes of Toxoplasma gondii, Plasmodium spp., Cryptosporidium spp., and Theileria spp.
Results: Comparative genomic and phylogenetic studies of apicomplexan genomes reveals that most contain only a single conventional actin and yet they each have 8-10 additional actin-related proteins. Among these are a highly conserved Arp1 protein (likely part of a conserved dynactin complex), and Arp4 and Arp6 homologues (subunits of the chromatin-remodeling machinery). In contrast, apicomplexans lack canonical Arp2 or Arp3 proteins, suggesting they lost the Arp2/3 actin polymerization complex on their evolutionary path towards intracellular parasitism. Seven of these actin-like proteins (ALPs) are novel to apicomplexans. They show no phylogenetic associations to the known Arp groups and likely serve functions specific to this important group of intracellular parasites.
Conclusion: The large diversity of actin-like proteins in apicomplexans suggests that the actin protein family has diverged to fulfill various roles in the unique biology of intracellular parasites. Conserved Arps likely participate in vesicular transport and gene expression, while apicomplexan-specific ALPs may control unique biological traits such as actin-based gliding motility.