Legumain has been reported from diverse sources such as plants, parasites (animals) and mammals, but little is known in the lower chordates. The present study reports the first characterization of legumain cDNA from the protochordate Branchiostoma belcheri. The deduced 435-amino-acid-long protein is structurally characterized by the presence of a putative N-terminal signal peptide, a peptidase_C13 superfamily domain with the conserved Lys123-Gly124-Asp125 motif and catalytic dyad His153 and Cys195 and two potential Asn-glycosylation sites at Asn85 and Asn270. Phylogenetic analysis demonstrates that B. belcheri legumain forms an independent cluster together with ascidian legumain, and is positioned at the base of vertebrate legumains, suggesting that B. belcheri legumain gene may represent the archetype of vertebrate legumain genes. Both recombinant legumain expressed in yeast and endogenous legumain are able to be converted into active protein of ~37 kDa via a C-terminal autocleavage at acid pH values. The recombinant legumain efficiently degrades the legumain-specific substrate Z-Ala-Ala-Asn-MCA (benzyloxycarbonyl-L-alanyl-L-alanyl-L-asparagine-4-methylcoumaryl-7-amide) at optimum pH 5.5; and the enzymatic activity is inhibited potently by iodoacetamide and N-ethylmaleimide, partially by hen's-egg white cystatin, but not by E-64 [trans-epoxysuccinyl-L-leucylamido-(4-guanidino)butane], PMSF and pepstatin A. In addition, legumain is expressed in vivo in a tissue-specific manner, with main expression in the hepatic caecum and hind-gut of B. belcheri. Altogether, these results suggest that B. belcheri legumain plays a role in the degradation of macromolecules in food.

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