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Open Access Highly Accessed Open Badges Research article

Structural and evolutionary adaptation of rhoptry kinases and pseudokinases, a family of coccidian virulence factors

Eric Talevich1 and Natarajan Kannan12*

Author Affiliations

1 Institute of Bioinformatics, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia, USA

2 Department of Biochemistry, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia, USA

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2013, 13:117  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-13-117

Published: 6 June 2013



The widespread protozoan parasite Toxoplasma gondii interferes with host cell functions by exporting the contents of a unique apical organelle, the rhoptry. Among the mix of secreted proteins are an expanded, lineage-specific family of protein kinases termed rhoptry kinases (ROPKs), several of which have been shown to be key virulence factors, including the pseudokinase ROP5. The extent and details of the diversification of this protein family are poorly understood.


In this study, we comprehensively catalogued the ROPK family in the genomes of Toxoplasma gondii, Neospora caninum and Eimeria tenella, as well as portions of the unfinished genome of Sarcocystis neurona, and classified the identified genes into 42 distinct subfamilies. We systematically compared the rhoptry kinase protein sequences and structures to each other and to the broader superfamily of eukaryotic protein kinases to study the patterns of diversification and neofunctionalization in the ROPK family and its subfamilies. We identified three ROPK sub-clades of particular interest: those bearing a structurally conserved N-terminal extension to the kinase domain (NTE), an E. tenella-specific expansion, and a basal cluster including ROP35 and BPK1 that we term ROPKL. Structural analysis in light of the solved structures ROP2, ROP5, ROP8 and in comparison to typical eukaryotic protein kinases revealed ROPK-specific conservation patterns in two key regions of the kinase domain, surrounding a ROPK-conserved insert in the kinase hinge region and a disulfide bridge in the kinase substrate-binding lobe. We also examined conservation patterns specific to the NTE-bearing clade. We discuss the possible functional consequences of each.


Our work sheds light on several important but previously unrecognized features shared among rhoptry kinases, as well as the essential differences between active and degenerate protein kinases. We identify the most distinctive ROPK-specific features conserved across both active kinases and pseudokinases, and discuss these in terms of sequence motifs, evolutionary context, structural impact and potential functional relevance.

By characterizing the proteins that enable these parasites to invade the host cell and co-opt its signaling mechanisms, we provide guidance on potential therapeutic targets for the diseases caused by coccidian parasites.