The African trypanosome Trypanosoma brucei is a flagellated unicellular parasite transmitted by tsetse flies that causes African sleeping sickness in sub-Saharan Africa. Trypanosomes are highly adapted for life in the hostile environment of the mammalian bloodstream, and have various adaptations to their cell biology that facilitate immune evasion. These include a specialized morphology, with most nutrient uptake occurring in the privileged location of the flagellar pocket. In addition, trypanosomes show extremely high rates of recycling of a protective VSG (variant surface glycoprotein) coat, whereby host antibodies are stripped off of the VSG before it is re-used. VSG recycling therefore functions as a mechanism for cleaning the VSG coat, allowing trypanosomes to survive in low titres of anti-VSG antibodies. Lastly, T. brucei has developed an extremely sophisticated strategy of antigenic variation of its VSG coat allowing it to evade host antibodies. A single trypanosome has more than 1500 VSG genes, most of which are located in extensive silent arrays. Strikingly, most of these silent VSGs are pseudogenes, and we are still in the process of trying to understand how non-intact VSGs are recombined to produce genes encoding functional coats. Only one VSG is expressed at a time from one of approximately 15 telomeric VSG ES (expression site) transcription units. It is becoming increasingly clear that chromatin remodelling must play a critical role in ES control. Hopefully, a better understanding of these unique trypanosome adaptations will eventually allow us to disrupt their ability to multiply in the mammalian bloodstream.

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