ABSTRACT

Blood-sucking leeches, some of which are referred to as medicinal leeches, have caught attention not only because of their medical purposes, but also as study organisms to conduct research within fields as diverse as neurobiology, osmoregulation, ecology, and phylogeny. Of particular interest is the question whether hemophagy in leeches is of single origin or evolved independently several times. A key component in the saliva of hematophagous leeches is hirudin, a strong natural inhibitor of thrombin and hence the blood coagulation cascade. Multiple isoforms of hirudin have been described within and among several leech species and genera, often based on sequence data only. The identification of hirudin-like factors (HLFs) illustrated the necessity to underpin such predictions by functional tests. We overexpressed and purified the hirudin of the North American medicinal leech, Macrobdella decora, and proved its thrombin-inhibiting activity. In addition, analysis of the gene structure of both hirudin and some of the decorsins of M. decora clearly indicated conserved exon and intron positions when compared to genes of hirudins and HLFs of Eurasian medicinal leeches. Our data provide evidence for the incorporation of decorsins into the hirudin superfamily and support the concept of a single origin of blood feeding in jawed leeches.

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