The secretion and activation of the major cathepsin L1 cysteine protease involved in the virulence of the helminth pathogen Fasciola hepatica was investigated. Only the fully processed and active mature enzyme can be detected in medium in which adult F. hepatica are cultured. However, immunocytochemical studies revealed that the inactive procathepsin L1 is packaged in secretory vesicles of epithelial cells that line the parasite gut. These observations suggest that processing and activation of procathepsin L1 occurs following secretion from these cells into the acidic gut lumen. Expression of the 37-kDa procathepsin L1 in Pichia pastoris showed that an intermolecular processing event within a conserved GXNXFXD motif in the propeptide generates an active 30-kDa intermediate form. Further activation of the enzyme was initiated by decreasing the pH to 5.0 and involved the progressive processing of the 37 and 30-kDa forms to other intermediates and finally to a fully mature 24.5 kDa cathepsin L with an additional 1 or 2 amino acids. An active site mutant procathepsin L, constructed by replacing the Cys26 with Gly26, failed to autoprocess. However, [Gly26]procathepsin L was processed by exogenous wild-type cathepsin L to a mature enzyme plus 10 amino acids attached to the N terminus. This exogenous processing occurred without the formation of a 30-kDa intermediate form. The results indicate that activation of procathepsin L1 by removal of the propeptide can occur by different pathways, and that this takes place within the parasite gut where the protease functions in food digestion and from where it is liberated as an active enzyme for additional extracorporeal roles.
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