The general features of the glycosylphosphatidylinositol (GPI) signal have been conserved in evolution. To test whether the requirements for GPI attachment are indeed the same in mammalian cells and parasitic protozoa, we expressed the prototype GPI-linked protein of Trypanosoma brucei, the variant surface glycoprotein (VSG), in COS cells. Although large amounts of VSG were produced, only a small fraction became GPI linked. This impaired processing is not caused by the VSG ectodomain, since replacement of the VSG GPI signal with that of decay accelerating factor (DAF) produced GPI-linked VSG. Furthermore, whereas fusion of the DAF GPI signal to the COOH terminus of human growth hormone (hGH) produces GPI-linked hGH, an analogous hGH fusion using the VSG GPI signal does not, indicating that the VSG GPI signal functions poorly in mammalian cells. By constructing chimeric VSG-DAF GPI signals and fusing them to the COOH terminus of hGH, we show that of the two critical elements that comprise the GPI-signal--the cleavage/attachment site and the COOH terminal hydrophobic domain--the former is responsible for the impaired activity of the VSG GPI signal in COS cells. To confirm this, we show that the VSG GPI signal can be converted to a viable signal for mammalian cells by altering the amino acid configuration at the cleavage/attachment site. We also show that when fused to the COOH terminus of hGH, the putative GPI signal from the malaria circumsporozoite (CS) protein produces low levels of GPI-anchored hGH, suggesting that the CS protein is indeed GPI linked, but that the CS protein GPI signal, like the VSG-signal, functions poorly in COS cells. The finding that the requirements for GPI attachment are similar but not identical in parasitic protozoa and mammalian cells may allow for the development of selective inhibitors of GPI-anchoring that might prove useful as antiparasite therapeutics.

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