Transferrin is an essential growth factor for African trypanosomes. Here we show that expression of the trypanosomal transferrin receptor, which bears no structural similarity with mammalian transferrin receptors, is regulated by iron availability. Iron depletion of bloodstream forms of Trypanosoma brucei with the iron chelator deferoxamine resulted in a 3-fold up-regulation of the transferrin receptor and a 3-fold increase of the transferrin uptake rate. The abundance of expression site associated gene product 6 (ESAG6) mRNA, which encodes one of the two subunits of the trypanosome transferrin receptor, is regulated 5-fold by a post-transcriptional mechanism. In mammalian cells the stability of transferrin receptor mRNA is controlled by iron regulatory proteins (IRPs) binding to iron-responsive elements (IREs) in the 3′-untranslated region (UTR). Therefore, the role of a T. brucei cytoplasmic aconitase (TbACO) that is highly related to mammalian IRP-1 was investigated. Iron regulation of the transferrin receptor was found to be unaffected in δaco::NEO/δaco::HYG null mutants generated by targeted disruption of the TbACO gene. Thus, the mechanism of post-transcriptional transferrin receptor regulation in trypanosomes appears to be distinct from the IRE/IRP paradigm. The transferrin uptake rate was also increased when trypanosomes were transferred from medium supplemented with foetal bovine serum to medium supplemented with sera from other vertebrates. Due to varying binding affinities of the trypanosomal transferrin receptor for transferrins of different species, serum change can result in iron starvation. Thus, regulation of transferrin receptor expression may be a fast compensatory mechanism upon transmission of the parasite to a new host species.

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