Topic: Trypanosomes

Trypanosomes, disease-causing parasitic protozoa, have a unique genetic mechanism by which they are able to disguise themselves from the human immune system.

Trypanosomes are single-celled parasitic protozoa which can be carried by insects, plants, birds and mammals. They may cause disease when they spread to new hosts, particularly humans and domestic animals, and they are the pathogens responsible for both African sleeping sickness and Chagas Disease, deadly insect-borne diseases common in Africa and South America.

Because trypanosomes have a unique mechanism by which they are able to disguise themselves from the human immune system, they are of substantial interest to immunologists. Research has shown that Trypanosoma brucei employs a process known as antigenic variation to quickly switch the antigens that stud its surface. Because the body’s immune system recognizes pathogens based on their antigens, this method effectively renders the parasite undetectable, allowing it to repeatedly evade attack. Rockefeller University researchers have made several important discoveries related to the mechanisms by which antigenic variation occurs, including the identification of “variant surface glycoprotein” genes which control the process. Efforts are underway in several Rockefeller labs to further elucidate how trypanosomes regulate the selection of these genes.