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Trypanosoma brucei is a protozoan parasite that causes African sleeping sickness. T. brucei multiplies extracellularly in the bloodstream, relying on antigenic variation of a dense variant surface glycoprotein (VSG) coat to escape antibody-mediated lysis. We investigated the role of VSG in proliferation and pathogenicity by using inducible RNA interference to ablate VSG transcript down to 1-2% normal levels. Inhibiting VSG synthesis in vitro triggers a rapid and specific cell cycle checkpoint blocking cell division. Parasites arrest at a discrete precytokinesis stage with two full-length flagella and opposing flagellar pockets, without undergoing additional rounds of S phase and mitosis. A subset (<10%) of the stalled cells have internal flagella, indicating that the progenitors of these cells were already committed to cytokinesis when VSG restriction was sensed. Although there was no obvious VSG depletion in vitro after 24-h induction of VSG RNA interference, there was rapid clearance of these cells in vivo. We propose that a stringent block in VSG synthesis produces stalled trypanosomes with a minimally compromised VSG coat, which can be targeted by the immune system. Our data indicate that VSG protein or transcript is monitored during cell cycle progression in bloodstream-form T. brucei and describes precise precytokinesis cell cycle arrest. This checkpoint before cell division provides a link between the protective VSG coat and cell cycle progression and could function as a novel parasite safety mechanism, preventing extensive dilution of the protective VSG coat in the absence of VSG synthesis.

Original publication




Journal article


Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A

Publication Date





8716 - 8721


Animals, Blotting, Western, Cell Cycle, Flow Cytometry, Membrane Glycoproteins, Mice, Microscopy, Fluorescence, RNA Interference, Trypanosoma brucei brucei, Trypanosomiasis, African