DNA to the defense

CAMBRIDGE, U.K., Fri., Aug 4, 2006 -- A team of scientists headed by Dr. Sara Melville at the University of Cambridge has shown that the parasite known to cause African sleeping sickness has evolved an unusual chromosomal structure as a result of environmental adaptation. In this parasite, the chromosomes are highly enriched in subtelomeric sequences dynamic and variable regions that connect the chromosome ends to the gene-rich cores. These subtelomeres, in some cases comprising 75% of the total chromosome length, contain a large repertoire of genes involved in circumventing the human immune response. This finding challenges scientists' general view of how a chromosome is functionally organized. An article describing the research will appear online this week in the journal Genome Research.

African sleeping sickness, or trypanosomiasis, is caused by a protozoan parasite known as Trypanosoma brucei. Endemic to sub-Saharan Africa, it is transmitted by tsetse flies and infects a variety of mammals, including humans. There are no vaccines against T. brucei, and most drugs to treat the disease have dangerous side effects or are scarce in the countries most heavily afflicted. Each day, the disease kills approximately 100 people.

In order to avoid destruction by mammalian immune systems, T. brucei continually changes the expression of the proteins on its outer surface. These proteins are encoded by VSGs, or variant surface glycoprotein genes. While the immune system attacks most of the parasites in a given host, some trypanosomes rapidly evolve and express new variants of VSG, thereby allowing the parasite to persist and spread through a population.

In the current study, Sergio Callejas, a Marie Curie Research Fellow in Melville's laboratory and the first author on the manuscript, conducted a series of experiments to demonstrate that T. brucei has used a strategy of chromosomal expansio

Contact: Maria Smit
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

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