In contrast with most species, including humans, which have monofunctional forms of the folate biosynthetic enzymes TS (thymidylate synthase) and DHFR (dihydrofolate reductase), several pathogenic protozoal parasites, including Cryptosporidium hominis, contain a bifunctional form of the enzymes on a single polypeptide chain having both catalytic activities. The crystal structure of the bifunctional enzyme TS–DHFR C. hominis reveals a dimer with a ‘crossover helix’, a swap domain between DHFR domains, unique in that this helical region from one monomer makes extensive contacts with the DHFR active site of the other monomer. In the present study, we used site-directed mutagenesis to probe the role of this crossover helix in DHFR catalysis. Mutations were made to the crossover helix: an ‘alanine-face’ enzyme in which the residues on the face of the helix close to the DHFR active site of the other subunit were mutated to alanine, a ‘glycine-face’ enzyme in which the same residues were mutated to glycine, and an ‘all-alanine’ helix in which all residues of the helix were mutated to alanine. These mutant enzymes were studied using a rapid transient kinetic approach. The mutations caused a dramatic decrease in the DHFR activity. The DHFR catalytic activity of the alanine-face mutant enzyme was 30 s−1, the glycine-face mutant enzyme was 17 s−1, and the all-alanine helix enzyme was 16 s−1, all substantially impaired from the wild-type DHFR activity of 152 s−1. It is clear that loss of helix interactions results in a marked decrease in DHFR activity, supporting a role for this swap domain in DHFR catalysis. The crossover helix provides a unique structural feature of C. hominis bifunctional TS–DHFR that could be exploited as a target for species-specific non-active site inhibitors.

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