Competition among variants is predictable and contributes to the antigenic variation dynamics of African trypanosomes

Douglas O Escrivani, Viktor Scheidt, Michele Tinti, Joana Faria, David Horn

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Several persistent pathogens employ antigenic variation to continually evade mammalian host adaptive immune responses. African trypanosomes use variant surface glycoproteins (VSGs) for this purpose, transcribing one telomeric VSG expression-site at a time, and exploiting a reservoir of (sub)telomeric VSG templates to switch the active VSG. It has been known for over fifty years that new VSGs emerge in a predictable order in Trypanosoma brucei, and differential activation frequencies are now known to contribute to the hierarchy. Switching of approximately 0.01% of dividing cells to many new VSGs, in the absence of post-switching competition, suggests that VSGs are deployed in a highly profligate manner, however. Here, we report that switched trypanosomes do indeed compete, in a highly predictable manner that is dependent upon the activated VSG. We induced VSG gene recombination and switching in in vitro culture using CRISPR-Cas9 nuclease to target the active VSG. VSG dynamics, that were independent of host immune selection, were subsequently assessed using RNA-seq. Although trypanosomes activated VSGs from repressed expression-sites at relatively higher frequencies, the population of cells that activated minichromosomal VSGs subsequently displayed a competitive advantage and came to dominate. Furthermore, the advantage appeared to be more pronounced for longer VSGs. Differential growth of switched clones was also associated with wider differences, affecting transcripts involved in nucleolar function, translation, and energy metabolism. We conclude that antigenic variants compete, and that the population of cells that activates minichromosome derived VSGs displays a competitive advantage. Thus, competition among variants impacts antigenic variation dynamics in African trypanosomes and likely prolongs immune evasion with a limited set of antigens.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere1011530
Issue number7
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 3 Jul 2023

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© 2023 Escrivani et al.

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