Expanded Complement of Niemann-Pick Type C2-like Protein Genes in Clonorchis Sinensis Suggests Functions Beyond Sterol Binding and Transport

Parasit Vectors. 2020 Jan 23;13(1):38. doi: 10.1186/s13071-020-3910-0.


Background: The parasitic flatworm Clonorchis sinensis inhabits the biliary tree of humans and other piscivorous mammals. This parasite can survive and thrive in the bile duct, despite exposure to bile constituents and host immune attack. Although the precise biological mechanisms underlying this adaptation are unknown, previous work indicated that Niemann-pick type C2 (NPC2)-like sterol-binding proteins might be integral in the host-parasite interplay. Expansions of this family in some invertebrates, such as arthropods, have shown functional diversification, including novel forms of chemoreception. Thus, here we curated the NPC2-like protein gene complement in C. sinensis, and predicted their conserved and/or divergent functional roles.

Methods: We used an established comparative genomic-bioinformatic approach to curate NPC2-like proteins encoded in published genomes of Korean and Chinese isolates of C. sinensis. Protein sequence and structural homology, presence of conserved domains and phylogeny were used to group and functionally classify NPC2-like proteins. Furthermore, transcription levels of NPC2-like protein-encoding genes were explored in different developmental stages and tissues.

Results: Totals of 35 and 32 C. sinensis NPC2-like proteins were predicted to be encoded in the genomes of the Korean and Chinese isolates, respectively. Overall, these proteins had low sequence homology and high variability of sequence alignment coverage when compared with curated NPC2s. Most C. sinensis proteins were predicted to retain a conserved ML domain and a conserved fold conformation, with a large cavity within the protein. Only one protein sequence retained the conserved amino acid residues required in bovine NPC2 to bind cholesterol. Non-canonical C. sinensis NPC2-like protein-coding domains clustered into four distinct phylogenetic groups with members of a group frequently encoded on the same genome scaffolds. Interestingly, NPC2-like protein-encoding genes were predicted to be variably transcribed in different developmental stages and adult tissues, with most being transcribed in the metacercarial stage.

Conclusions: The results of the present investigation confirms an expansion of NPC2-like proteins in C. sinensis, suggesting a diverse array of functions beyond sterol binding and transport. Functional explorations of this protein family should elucidate the mechanisms enabling the establishment and survival of C. sinensis and related flukes in the biliary systems of mammalian hosts.

Keywords: Adaptation; Clonorchis sinensis; Comparative genomics; Functional protein annotation; NPC2; Niemann-pick type C2.