Toxoplasma gondii is a ubiquitous protozoan parasite capable of infecting all warm-blooded animals, including humans. Its closest extant relative, Hammondia hammondi, has never been found to infect humans and, in contrast to T. gondii, is highly attenuated in mice. To better understand the genetic bases for these phenotypic differences, we sequenced the genome of a H. hammondi isolate (HhCatGer041) and found the genomic synteny between H. hammondi and T. gondii to be >95%. We used this genome to determine the H. hammondi primary sequence of two major T. gondii mouse virulence genes, TgROP5 and TgROP18. When we expressed these genes in T. gondii, we found that H. hammondi orthologs of TgROP5 and TgROP18 were functional. Similar to T. gondii, the HhROP5 locus is expanded, and two distinct HhROP5 paralogs increased the virulence of a T. gondii TgROP5 knockout strain. We also identified a 107 base pair promoter region, absent only in type III TgROP18, which is necessary for TgROP18 expression. This result indicates that the ROP18 promoter was active in the most recent common ancestor of these two species and that it was subsequently inactivated in progenitors of the type III lineage. Overall, these data suggest that the virulence differences between these species are not solely due to the functionality of these key virulence factors. This study provides evidence that other mechanisms, such as differences in gene expression or the lack of currently uncharacterized virulence factors, may underlie the phenotypic differences between these species.
Journal: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America