The surface coat of procyclic Trypanosoma brucei: Programmed expression and proteolytic cleavage of procyclin in the tsetse fly
Trypanosoma brucei, the protozoan parasite causing sleeping sickness, is transmitted by a tsetse fly vector. When the tsetse takes a blood meal from an infected human, it ingests bloodstream form trypanosomes that quickly differentiate into procyclic forms within the fly's midgut. During this process, the parasite loses the 107 molecules of variant surface glycoprotein that formed its surface coat, and it develops a new coat composed of several million procyclin molecules. Procyclins, the products of a small multigene family, are glycosyl phosphatidylinositol-anchored proteins containing characteristic amino acid repeats at the C terminus [either EP (EP procyclin, a form of procyclin rich in Glu-Pro repeats) or GPEET (GPEET procyclin, a form of procyclin rich in Glu-Pro-Glu-Glu-Thr repeats)]. We have used a sensitive and accurate mass spectrometry method to analyze the appearance of different procyclins during the establishment of midgut infections in tsetse flies. We found that different procyclin gene products are expressed in an orderly manner. Early in the infection (day 3), GPEET2 is the only procyclin detected. By day 7, however, GPEET2 disappears and is replaced by several isoforms of glycosylated EP, but not the unglycosylated isoform EP2. Unexpectedly, we discovered that the N-terminal domains of all procyclins are quantitatively removed by proteolysis in the fly, but not in culture. These findings suggest that one function of the protease-resistant C-terminal domain, containing the amino acid repeats, is to protect the parasite surface from digestive enzymes in the tsetse fly gut.