Macrophages are specialized to detect and destroy intracellular microbes and yet a number of pathogens have evolved to exploit this hostile niche. Here we demonstrate that the obligate intracellular parasite Toxoplasma gondii disarms macrophage innate clearance mechanisms by secreting a serine threonine kinase called ROP18, which binds to and phosphorylates immunity-related GTPases (IRGs). Substrate profiling of ROP18 revealed a preference for a conserved motif within switch region I of the GTPase domain, a modification predicted to disrupt IRG function. Consistent with this, expression of ROP18 was both necessary and sufficient to block recruitment of Irgb6, which was in turn required for parasite destruction. ROP18 phosphorylation of IRGs prevented clearance within inflammatory monocytes and IFN-γ-activated macrophages, conferring parasite survival in vivo and promoting virulence. IRGs are implicated in clearance of a variety of intracellular pathogens, suggesting that other virulence factors may similarly thwart this innate cellular defense mechanism.
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