Palmitoylation is the post-translational reversible addition of the acyl moiety, palmitate, to cysteine residues of proteins and is involved in regulating protein trafficking, localization, stability and function. The Aspartate-Histidine-Histidine-Cysteine (DHHC) protein family, named for their highly conserved DHHC signature motif, is thought to be responsible for catalysing protein palmitoylation. Palmitoylation is widespread in all eukaryotes, including the malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum, where over 400 palmitoylated proteins are present in the asexual intraerythrocytic schizont stage parasites, including proteins involved in key aspects of parasite maturation and development. The P. falciparum genome includes 12 proteins containing the conserved DHHC motif. In this study, we adapted a palmitoyl-transferase activity assay for use with P. falciparum proteins and demonstrated for the first time that P. falciparum DHHC proteins are responsible for the palmitoylation of P. falciparum substrates. This assay also reveals that multiple DHHCs are capable of palmitoylating the same substrate, indicating functional redundancy at least in vitro. To test whether functional redundancy also exists in vivo, we investigated the endogenous localization and essentiality of a subset of schizont-expressed PfDHHC proteins. Individual PfDHHC proteins localized to distinct organelles, including parasite-specific organelles such as the rhoptries and inner membrane complex. Knock-out studies identified individual DHHCs that may be essential for blood-stage growth and others that were functionally redundant in the blood stages but may have functions in other stages of parasite development. Supporting this hypothesis, disruption of PfDHHC9 had no effect on blood-stage growth but reduced the formation of gametocytes, suggesting that this protein could be exploited as a transmission-blocking target. The localization and stage-specific expression of the DHHC proteins may be important for regulating their substrate specificity and thus may provide a path for inhibitor development.
© 2016 The Authors Cellular Microbiology Published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.