Planarian cholinesterase: molecular and functional characterization of an evolutionarily ancient enzyme to study organophosphorus pesticide toxicity

Arch Toxicol. 2018 Mar;92(3):1161-1176. doi: 10.1007/s00204-017-2130-7. Epub 2017 Nov 22.


The asexual freshwater planarian Dugesia japonica has emerged as a medium-throughput alternative animal model for neurotoxicology. We have previously shown that D. japonica are sensitive to organophosphorus pesticides (OPs) and characterized the in vitro inhibition profile of planarian cholinesterase (DjChE) activity using irreversible and reversible inhibitors. We found that DjChE has intermediate features of acetylcholinesterase (AChE) and butyrylcholinesterase (BChE). Here, we identify two candidate genes (Djche1 and Djche2) responsible for DjChE activity. Sequence alignment and structural homology modeling with representative vertebrate AChE and BChE sequences confirmed our structural predictions, and show that both DjChE enzymes have intermediate sized catalytic gorges and disrupted peripheral binding sites. Djche1 and Djche2 were both expressed in the planarian nervous system, as anticipated from previous activity staining, but with distinct expression profiles. To dissect how DjChE inhibition affects planarian behavior, we acutely inhibited DjChE activity by exposing animals to either an OP (diazinon) or carbamate (physostigmine) at 1 µM for 4 days. Both inhibitors delayed the reaction of planarians to heat stress. Simultaneous knockdown of both Djche genes by RNAi similarly resulted in a delayed heat stress response. Furthermore, chemical inhibition of DjChE activity increased the worms' ability to adhere to a substrate. However, increased substrate adhesion was not observed in Djche1/Djche2 (RNAi) animals or in inhibitor-treated day 11 regenerates, suggesting this phenotype may be modulated by other mechanisms besides ChE inhibition. Together, our study characterizes DjChE expression and function, providing the basis for future studies in this system to dissect alternative mechanisms of OP toxicity.

Keywords: Acetylcholinesterase; Behavior; Heat stress; Organophosphorus pesticides; Planarians.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cholinesterase Inhibitors / pharmacology
  • Cholinesterases / chemistry
  • Cholinesterases / genetics*
  • Cholinesterases / metabolism*
  • Diazinon / pharmacology
  • Evolution, Molecular
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Enzymologic
  • Gene Knockdown Techniques
  • Heat-Shock Response / drug effects
  • Heat-Shock Response / physiology*
  • Nervous System / enzymology
  • Physostigmine / pharmacology
  • Planarians / drug effects
  • Planarians / physiology*
  • Protein Conformation


  • Cholinesterase Inhibitors
  • Physostigmine
  • Cholinesterases
  • Diazinon