Host cell invasion by Toxoplasma gondii and other apicomplexan parasites requires transmembrane adhesins that mediate binding to receptors on the substrate and host cell to facilitate motility and invasion. Rhomboid proteases (ROMs) are thought to cleave adhesins within their transmembrane segments, thus allowing the parasite to disengage from receptors and completely enter the host cell. To examine the specific roles of individual ROMs during invasion, we generated single, double, and triple knockouts for the three ROMs expressed in T. gondii tachyzoites. Analysis of these mutants demonstrated that ROM4 is the primary protease involved in adhesin processing and host cell invasion, whereas ROM1 or ROM5 plays negligible roles in these processes. Deletion of ROM4 blocked the shedding of adhesins such as MIC2 (microneme protein 2), causing them to accumulate on the surface of extracellular parasites. Increased surface adhesins led to nonproductive attachment, altered gliding motility, impaired moving junction formation, and reduced invasion efficiency. Despite the importance of ROM4 for efficient invasion, mutants lacking all three ROMs were viable and MIC2 was still efficiently removed from the surface of invaded mutant parasites, implying the existence of ROM-independent mechanisms for adhesin removal during invasion. Collectively, these results suggest that although ROM processing of adhesins is not absolutely essential, it is important for efficient host cell invasion by T. gondii.
IMPORTANCE: Apicomplexan parasites such as Toxoplasma gondii express surface proteins that bind host cell receptors to aid invasion. Many of these adhesins are subject to cleavage by rhomboid proteases (ROMs) within their transmembrane segments during invasion. Previous studies have demonstrated the importance of adhesin cleavage for parasite invasion and proposed that the ROMs responsible for processing would be essential for parasite survival. In T. gondii, ROM5 was thought to be the critical ROM for adhesin shedding due to its robust protease activity in vitro and posterior localization on the parasite surface. Here, we knocked out all three ROMs in T. gondii tachyzoites and found that ROM4, but not ROM5, was key for adhesin cleavage. However, none of the ROMs individually or in combination was essential for cell entry, further emphasizing that essential pathways such as invasion typically rely on redundant pathways to ensure survival.