Evaluation of mechanisms that may generate DNA lesions triggering antigenic variation in African trypanosomes

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Antigenic variation by variant surface glycoprotein (VSG) coat switching in African trypanosomes is one of the most elaborate immune evasion strategies found among pathogens. Changes in the identity of the transcribed VSG gene, which is always flanked by 70-bp and telomeric repeats, can be achieved either by transcriptional or DNA recombination mechanisms. The major route of VSG switching is DNA recombination, which occurs in the bloodstream VSG expression site (ES), a multigenic site transcribed by RNA polymerase I. Recombinogenic VSG switching is frequently catalyzed by homologous recombination (HR), a reaction normally triggered by DNA breaks. However, a clear understanding of how such breaks arise—including whether there is a dedicated and ES-focused mechanism—is lacking. Here, we synthesize data emerging from recent studies that have proposed a range of mechanisms that could generate these breaks: action of a nuclease or nucleases; repetitive DNA, most notably the 70-bp repeats, providing an intra-ES source of instability; DNA breaks derived from the VSG-adjacent telomere; DNA breaks arising from high transcription levels at the active ES; and DNA lesions arising from replication–transcription conflicts in the ES. We discuss the evidence that underpins these switch-initiation models and consider what features and mechanisms might be shared or might allow the models to be tested further. Evaluation of all these models highlights that we still have much to learn about the earliest acting step in VSG switching, which may have the greatest potential for therapeutic intervention in order to undermine the key reaction used by trypanosomes for their survival and propagation in the mammalian host.
Silva MS, Hovel-Miner GA., Briggs E, Elias MC, McCulloch RD.. Evaluation of mechanisms that may generate DNA lesions triggering antigenic variation in African trypanosomes. PLoS Pathog.. 2018;14(11):e1007321. doi:10.1371/journal.ppat.1007321.
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