Inserted (I) domains function as ligand-binding domains in adhesins that support cell adhesion and migration in many eukaryotic phyla. These adhesins include integrin αβ heterodimers in metazoans and single subunit transmembrane proteins in apicomplexans such as TRAP in and MIC2 in . Here we show that the I domain of TRAP is essential for sporozoite gliding motility, mosquito salivary gland invasion and mouse infection. Its replacement with the I domain from Toxoplasma MIC2 fully restores tissue invasion and parasite transmission, while replacement with the aX I domain from human integrins still partially restores liver infection. Mutations around the ligand binding site allowed salivary gland invasion but led to inefficient transmission to the rodent host. These results suggest that apicomplexan parasites appropriated polyspecific I domains in part for their ability to engage with multiple ligands and to provide traction for emigration into diverse organs in distant phyla.
The circumsporozoite protein (CSP) and thrombospondin-related adhesion protein (TRAP) are major targets for pre-erythrocytic malaria vaccine development. However, the CSP-based vaccine RTS,S provides only marginal protection, highlighting the need for innovative vaccine design and development. Here we design and characterize expression and folding of P. berghei (Pb) and P. falciparum (Pf) TRAP-CSP fusion proteins, and evaluate immunogenicity and sterilizing immunity in mice. TRAP N-terminal domains were fused to the CSP C-terminal αTSR domain with or without the CSP repeat region, expressed in mammalian cells, and evaluated with or without N-glycan shaving. Pb and Pf fusions were each expressed substantially better than the TRAP or CSP components alone; furthermore, the fusions but not the CSP component could be purified to homogeneity and were well folded and monomeric. As yields of TRAP and CSP fragments were insufficient, we immunized BALB/c mice with Pb TRAP-CSP fusions in AddaVax adjuvant and tested the effects of absence or presence of the CSP repeats and absence or presence of high mannose N-glycans on total antibody titer and protection from infection by mosquito bite both 2.5 months and 6 months after the last immunization. Fusions containing the repeats were completely protective against challenge and re-challenge, while those lacking repeats were significantly less effective. These results correlated with higher total antibody titers when repeats were present. Our results show that TRAP-CSP fusions increase protein antigen production, have the potential to yield effective vaccines, and also guide design of effective proteins that can be encoded by nucleic acid-based and virally vectored vaccines.