Many pathogens synthesize inositol phosphorylceramide (IPC) as the major sphingolipid (SL), differing from the mammalian host where sphingomyelin (SM) or more complex SLs predominate. The divergence between IPC synthase and mammalian SL synthases has prompted interest as a potential drug target. However, in the trypanosomatid protozoan Leishmania, cultured insect stage promastigotes lack de novo SL synthesis (Δspt2-) and SLs survive and remain virulent, as infective amastigotes salvage host SLs and continue to produce IPC. To further understand the role of IPC, we generated null IPCS mutants in Leishmania major (Δipcs). Unexpectedly and unlike fungi where IPCS is essential, Δipcs was remarkably normal in culture and highly virulent in mouse infections. Both IPCS activity and IPC were absent in Δipcs promastigotes and amastigotes, arguing against an alternative route of IPC synthesis. Notably, salvaged mammalian SM was highly abundant in purified amastigotes from both WT and Δipcs, and salvaged SLs could be further metabolized into IPC. SM was about 7-fold more abundant than IPC in WT amastigotes, establishing that SM is the dominant amastigote SL, thereby rendering IPC partially redundant. These data suggest that SM salvage likely plays key roles in the survival and virulence of both WT and Δipcs parasites in the infected host, confirmation of which will require the development of methods or mutants deficient in host SL/SM uptake in the future. Our findings call into question the suitability of IPCS as a target for chemotherapy, instead suggesting that approaches targeting SM/SL uptake or catabolism may warrant further emphasis.

Original languageEnglish
Article number102522
JournalJournal of Biological Chemistry
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 2022


  • infectivity and virulence
  • inositol phosphorylceramide
  • lipid remodeling
  • lipid salvage
  • sphingolipids
  • trypanosomatid protozoan parasite


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