BACKGROUND: Plasmodium species are entirely dependent upon their host as a source of essential iron. Although it is an indispensable micronutrient, oxidation of excess ferrous iron to the ferric state in the cell cytoplasm can produce reactive oxygen species that are cytotoxic. The malaria parasite must therefore carefully regulate the processes involved in iron acquisition and storage. A 273 amino acid membrane transporter that is a member of the vacuolar iron transporter (VIT) family and an orthologue of the yeast Ca2+-sensitive cross complementer (CCC1) protein plays a major role in cytosolic iron detoxification of Plasmodium species and functions in transport of ferrous iron ions into the endoplasmic reticulum for storage. While this transporter, termed PfVIT, is not critical for viability of the parasite evidence from studies of mice infected with VIT-deficient Plasmodium suggests it could still provide an efficient target for chemoprophylactic treatment of malaria. Individual amino acid residues that constitute the Fe2+ binding site of the protein were identified to better understand the structural basis of substrate recognition and binding by PfVIT.
METHODS: Using the crystal structure of a recently published plant VIT as a template, a high-quality homology model of PfVIT was constructed to identify the amino acid composition of the transporter's substrate binding site and to act as a guide for subsequent mutagenesis studies. To test the effect of mutation of the substrate binding-site residues on PfVIT function a yeast complementation assay assessed the ability of overexpressed, recombinant wild type and mutant PfVIT to rescue an iron-sensitive deletion strain (ccc1∆) of Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast from the toxic effects of a high concentration of extracellular iron.
RESULTS: The combined in silico and mutagenesis approach identified a methionine residue located within the cytoplasmic metal binding domain of the transporter as essential for PfVIT function and provided insight into the structural basis for the Fe2+-selectivity of the protein.
CONCLUSION: The structural model of the metal binding site of PfVIT opens the door for rational design of therapeutics to interfere with iron homeostasis within the malaria parasite.