Probabilistic order in antigenic variation of Trypanosoma brucei

Liam J. Morrison, Phelix Majiwa, Andrew F. Read, J. David Barry

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62 Scopus citations


Antigenic variation in African trypanosomes displays a degree of order that is usually described as 'semi-predictable' but which has not been analysed in statistical detail. It has been proposed that, during switching, the variable antigen type (VAT) being inactivated can influence which VAT is subsequently activated. Antigenic variation proceeds by the differential activation of members of the large archive of distinct variable surface glycoprotein (VSG) genes. The most popular model for ordered expression of VATs invokes differential activation probabilities for individual VSG genes, dictated in part by which of the four types of genetic locus they occupy. We have shown, in pilot experiments in cattle, correlation between the timing of appearance of VSG-specific mRNA and of lytic antibodies corresponding to seven VSGs encoded by single-copy genes. We have then determined the times of appearance of VAT-specific antibodies, as a measure of appearance of the VATs, in a statistically significant number of mouse infections (n=22). There is a surprisingly high degree of order in temporal appearance of the VATs, indicating that antigenic variation proceeds through order in the probability of activation of each VAT. In addition, for the few examples of each available, the locus type inhabited by the silent 'donor' VSG plays a significant role in determination of order. We have analysed in detail previously published data on VATs appearing in first relapse peaks, and find that the variant being switched off does not influence which one is being switched on. This differs from what has been reported for Plasmodium falciparum var antigenic variation. All these features of trypanosome antigenic variation can be explained by a one-step model in which, following an initial deactivation event, the switch process and the imposition of order early in infection arise from the inherent activation probabilities of the specific VSG being switched on.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)961-972
Number of pages12
JournalInternational Journal for Parasitology
Issue number9
StatePublished - Aug 2005

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Parasitology
  • Infectious Diseases


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