Homologous Recombination in Protozoan Parasites and Recombinase Inhibitors
Antigenic variation is an immune evasion strategy used by African trypanosomes, in which the parasites periodically switch the expression of VSG genes that encode their protective variant surface glycoprotein coat. Two main routes exist for VSG switching: changing the transcriptional status between an active and an inactive copy of the site of VSG expression, called the bloodstream VSG expression site, or recombination reactions that move silent VSGs or VSG copies into the actively transcribed expression site. Nothing is known about the proteins that control and catalyze these switching reactions. This study describes the cloning of a trypanosome gene encoding RAD51, an enzyme involved in DNA break repair and genetic exchange, and analysis of the role of the enzyme in antigenic variation. Trypanosomes genetically inactivated in the RAD51 gene were shown to be viable, and had phenotypes consistent with lacking functional expression of an enzyme of homologous recombination. The mutants had an impaired ability to undergo VSG switching, and it appeared that both recombinational and transcriptional switching reactions were down-regulated, indicating that RAD51 either catalyzes or regulates antigenic variation. Switching events were still detectable, however, so it appears that trypanosome factors other than RAD51 can also provide for antigenic variation.