Sphingolipids are important constituents of cell membranes and also serve as mediators of cell signaling and cell recognition. Sphingolipid metabolites such as sphingosine-1-phosphate and ceramide regulate signaling cascades involved in cell proliferation and differentiation, autophagy, inflammation, and apoptosis. Little is known about how sphingolipids and their metabolites function in single-celled eukaryotes. In the present study, we investigated the role of sphingosine kinase (SPHK) in the biology of the protozoan parasite Trypanosoma brucei, the agent of African sleeping sickness. T. brucei SPHK (TbSPHK) is constitutively but differentially expressed during the life cycle of T. brucei. Depletion of TbSPHK in procyclic-form T. brucei causes impaired growth and attenuation in the G1/S phase of the cell cycle. TbSPHK-depleted cells also develop organelle positioning defects and an accumulation of tyrosinated α-tubulin at the elongated posterior end of the cell, known as the “nozzle” phenotype, caused by other molecular perturbations in this organism. Our studies indicate that TbSPHK is involved in G1-to-S cell cycle progression, organelle positioning, and maintenance of cell morphology. Cytotoxicity assays using TbSPHK inhibitors revealed a favorable therapeutic index between T. brucei and human cells, suggesting TbSPHK to be a novel drug target.
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