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Mating Observed for First Time in Sleeping Sickness Parasites

Caught in the act! Researchers from the University of Bristol in the UK have observed mating for the first time in the microbes responsible for African sleeping sickness. This tropical disease is caused by trypanosomes, single-celled parasites that are found in the blood of those afflicted. The Bristol team was able to see what the trypanosomes were doing inside the tsetse flies that carry the disease by using fluorescent markers. The microscopic parasites were seen twirling and gyrating together before joining up into one hybrid cell. To tell which was which, individual trypanosomes were tagged with different colors, with the result that the hybrid cells had both colours. Professor Wendy Gibson, who led the research, commented: “It’s not only bigger animals that have intricate courtship – but you need a powerful microscope to see this!” Sex matters for microbes because it enables genes to be swapped between different strains, leading to new combinations of genes. In the case of disease-causing microbes like the trypanosome, sex can potentially lead to a lot of harmful genes being combined in one strain. These new results suggest that sex is not an optional or rare part of this microbe’s life cycle, but probably happens every time two different trypanosomes find themselves together in the same tsetse fly. Trypanosomes (see image) belong to a strange group of protozoa that includes several other medically important parasites such as Leishmania, Trichomonas, and Giardia. In the past, all these microbes were thought to reproduce just by splitting in half, but now results show that they also use sex to swap genes between strains. This research helps scientists understand how new strains of disease-causing microbes arise and how characteristics such as drug resistance get spread between different strains. The study, carried out by researchers from Bristol’s School of Biological Sciences and School of Veterinary Sciences in collaboration with the University of Cambridge, was published online on January 2, 2014 in Current Biology. [Press release] [Current Biology abstract]