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The African trypanosome, Trypanosoma brucei spp., is a paradigm for antigenic variation, the orchestrated alteration of cell surface molecules to evade host immunity. The parasite elicits robust antibody-mediated immune responses to its Variant Surface Glycoprotein (VSG) coat, but evades immune clearance by repeatedly accessing a large genetic VSG repertoire and “switching” to antigenically distinct VSGs. This persistent immune evasion has been ascribed exclusively to amino acid variance on the VSG surface presented by a conserved underlying protein architecture. We establish here that this model does not account for the scope of VSG structural and biochemical diversity. The 1.4Å resolution crystal structure of variant VSG3 manifests heretofore unappreciated divergence in the tertiary fold and oligomeric state. The structure also reveals an O linked carbohydrate on the top surface of VSG3, a modification previously unknown in African trypanosomes. Mass spectrometric analysis indicates that this O -glycosylation site is heterogeneously occupied in VSG3 by 0 to 3 hexose residues and is also present in other VSGs. We demonstrate that this O -glycosylation increases parasite virulence by impairing the generation of protective immunity. These data alter the paradigm of antigenic variation by the African trypanosome, expanding VSG variability beyond amino acid sequence to include surface posttranslational modifications with immunomodulatory impact.


This work was published in Nature Microbiology, available at DOI:10.1038/s41564-018-0187-6.


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