Natural cysteine protease inhibitors in protozoa: Fifteen years of the chagasin family

Biochimie. 2016 Mar;122:197-207. doi: 10.1016/j.biochi.2015.11.002. Epub 2015 Nov 4.


Chagasin-type inhibitors comprise natural inhibitors of papain-like cysteine proteases that are distributed among Protist, Bacteria and Archaea. Chagasin was identified in the pathogenic protozoa Trypanosoma cruzi as an approximately 11 kDa protein that is a tight-binding and highly thermostable inhibitor of papain, cysteine cathepsins and endogenous parasite cysteine proteases. It displays an Imunoglobulin-like fold with three exposed loops to one side of the molecule, where amino acid residues present in conserved motifs at the tips of each loop contact target proteases. Differently from cystatins, the loop 2 of chagasin enters the active-site cleft, making direct contact with the catalytic residues, while loops 4 and 6 embrace the enzyme from the sides. Orthologues of chagasin are named Inhibitors of Cysteine Peptidases (ICP), and share conserved overall tri-dimensional structure and mode of binding to proteases. ICPs are tentatively distributed in three families: in family I42 are grouped chagasin-type inhibitors that share conserved residues at the exposed loops; family I71 contains Plasmodium ICPs, which are large proteins having a chagasin-like domain at the C-terminus, with lower similarity to chagasin in the conserved motif at loop 2; family I81 contains Toxoplasma ICP. Recombinant ICPs tested so far can inactivate protozoa cathepsin-like proteases and their mammalian counterparts. Studies on their biological roles were carried out in a few species, mainly using transgenic protozoa, and the conclusions vary. However, in all cases, alterations in the levels of expression of chagasin/ICPs led to substantial changes in one or more steps of parasite biology, with higher incidence in influencing their interaction with the hosts. We will cover most of the findings on chagasin/ICP structural and functional properties and overview the current knowledge on their roles in protozoa.

Keywords: Cathepsin; Infection; Inhibitors; Leishmania; Plasmodium; Trypanosoma.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Amino Acid Motifs / genetics
  • Amino Acid Sequence
  • Binding Sites / genetics
  • Cysteine Proteinase Inhibitors / metabolism*
  • Plasmodium / enzymology*
  • Plasmodium / genetics
  • Protozoan Proteins / genetics
  • Protozoan Proteins / metabolism*
  • Sequence Homology, Amino Acid
  • Species Specificity
  • Trypanosoma cruzi / enzymology*
  • Trypanosoma cruzi / genetics


  • Cysteine Proteinase Inhibitors
  • Protozoan Proteins
  • chagasin, Trypanosoma