Pfnek-1, a NIMA-related kinase from the human malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum: Biochemical properties and possible involvement in MAPK regulation.
We have cloned Pfnek-1, a gene encoding a novel protein kinase from the human malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum. This enzyme displays maximal homology to the never-in-mitosis/Aspergillus (NIMA)/NIMA-like kinase (Nek) family of protein kinases, whose members are involved in eukaryotic cell division processes. Similar to other P. falciparum protein kinases and many enzymes of the NIMA/Nek family, Pfnek-1 possesses a large C-terminal extension in addition to the catalytic domain. Bacterially expressed recombinant Pfnek-1 protein is able to autophosphorylate and phosphorylate a panel of protein substrates with a specificity that is similar to that displayed by other members of the NIMA/Nek family. However, the FXXT motif usually found in NIMA/Nek protein kinases is substituted in Pfnek-1 by a SMAHS motif, which is reminiscent of a MAP/ERK kinase (MEK) activation site. Mutational analysis indicates that only one of the serine residues in this motif is essential for Pfnek-1 kinase activity in vitro. We show (a) that recombinant Pfnek-1 is able to specifically phosphorylate Pfmap-2, an atypical P. falciparum MAPK homologue, in vitro, and (b) that coincubation of Pfnek-1 and Pfmap-2 results in a synergistic increase in exogenous substrate labelling. This suggests that Pfnek-1 may be involved in the modulation of MAPK pathway output in malaria parasites. Finally, we demonstrate that recombinant Pfnek-1 can be used in inhibition assays to monitor the effect of kinase inhibitors, which opens the way to the screening of chemical libraries aimed at identifying potential new antimalarials.