Plant Molecular Biology

, Volume 97, Issue 6, pp 553–564 | Cite as

Mode of action and specificity of a chitinase from unicellular microalgae, Euglena gracilis

  • Yiming Feng
  • Yoshihito Kitaoku
  • Jun Tanaka
  • Toki Taira
  • Takayuki Ohnuma
  • Finn L. Aachmann
  • Tamo FukamizoEmail author


Key message

Euglena gracilis is a unicellular microalga showing characteristics of both plants and animals, and extensively used as a model organism in the research works of biochemistry and molecular biology. Biotechnological applications of E. gracilis have been conducted for production of numerous important compounds. However, chitin-mediated defense system intensively studied in higher plants remains to be investigated in this microalga. Recently, Taira et al. (Biosci Biotechnol Biochem 82:1090–1100, 2018) isolated a unique chitinase gene, comprising two catalytic domains almost homologous to each other (Cat1 and Cat2) and two chitin-binding domains (CBD1 and CBD2), from E. gracilis. We herein examined the mode of action and the specificity of the recombinant Cat2 by size exclusion chromatography and NMR spectroscopy. Both Cat1 and Cat2 appeared to act toward chitin substrate with non-processive/endo-splitting mode, recognizing two contiguous N-acetylglucosamine units at subsites − 2 and − 1. This is the first report on a chitinase having two endo-splitting catalytic domains. A cooperative action of two different endo-splitting domains may be advantageous for defensive action of the E. gracilis chitinase.


The unicellular alga, E. gracilis, produces a chitinase consisting of two GH18 catalytic domains (Cat1 and Cat2) and two CBM18 chitin-binding domains (CBD1 and CBD2). Here, we produced a recombinant protein of the Cat2 domain to examine its mode of action as well as specificity. Cat2 hydrolyzed N-acetylglucosamine (A) oligomers (An, n = 4, 5, and 6) and partially N-acetylated chitosans with a non-processive/endo-splitting mode of action. NMR analysis of the product mixture from the enzymatic digestion of chitosan revealed that the reducing ends were exclusively A-unit, and the nearest neighbors of the reducing ends were mostly A-unit but not exclusively. Both A-unit and D-unit were found at the non-reducing ends and the nearest neighbors. These results indicated strong and absolute specificities for subsites − 2 and − 1, respectively, and no preference for A-unit at subsites + 1 and + 2. The same results were obtained from sugar sequence analysis of the individual enzymatic products from the chitosans. The subsite specificities of Cat2 are similar to those of GH18 human chitotriosidase, but differ from those of plant GH18 chitinases. Since the structures of Cat1 and Cat2 resemble to each other (99% similarity in amino acid sequences), Cat1 may hydrolyze the substrate with the same mode of action. Thus, the E. gracilis chitinase appears to act toward chitin polysaccharide chain through a cooperative action of the two endo-splitting catalytic domains, recognizing two contiguous A-units at subsites − 2 and − 1.


Euglena gracilis Chitinase Specificity Partially N-acetylated chitosan Size exclusion chromatography NMR spectroscopy 



In memory of Professor Kjell Morten Vårum, NTNU, who passed away during this work. We are grateful to his sincere and zealous leadership in this collaborative project.

Author contributions

TT, TO, and TF planned this work, YF, JT and YK performed experiments, YF, YK, FLA, TO and TF analyzed the data, and YF, YK, FLA, and TF wrote the paper.


YK was supported by Scandinavia-Japan Sasakawa Foundation and KIFEE 2016–2018 program (Grant 249797) from the Research Council of Norway (RCN). YF was supported by the MARPOL project, and NNP—Norwegian NMR Platform (Grants 221576 and 226244 from the RCN, respectively) as well as the program of China Scholarship Council.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Yiming Feng
    • 2
  • Yoshihito Kitaoku
    • 1
  • Jun Tanaka
    • 1
  • Toki Taira
    • 3
  • Takayuki Ohnuma
    • 1
  • Finn L. Aachmann
    • 2
  • Tamo Fukamizo
    • 1
    Email author
  1. 1.Department of Advanced BioscienceKindai UniversityNaraJapan
  2. 2.Norwegian Biopolymer Laboratory (NOBIPOL), Department of Biotechnology and Food ScienceNTNU Norwegian University of Science and TechnologyTrondheimNorway
  3. 3.Department of Bioscience and BiotechnologyUniversity of the RyukyusNishihara-choJapan

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