Interspecies quorum sensing in co-infections can manipulate trypanosome transmission potential

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Quorum sensing (QS) is commonly used in microbial communities and some unicellular parasites to coordinate group behaviours1,2. An example is Trypanosoma brucei, which causes human African trypanosomiasis, as well as the livestock disease, nagana. Trypanosomes are spread by tsetse flies, their transmission being enabled by cell-cycle arrested ‘stumpy forms’ that are generated in a density-dependent manner in mammalian blood. QS is mediated through a small (<500 Da), non-proteinaceous, stable but unidentified ‘stumpy induction factor’3, whose signal response pathway has been identified. Although QS is characterized in T. brucei, co-infections with other trypanosome species (Trypanosoma congolense and Trypanosoma vivax) are common in animals, generating the potential for interspecies interactions. Here, we show that T. congolense exhibits density-dependent growth control in vivo and conserves QS regulatory genes, of which one can complement a T. brucei QS signal-blind mutant to restore stumpy formation. Thereafter, we demonstrate that T. congolense-conditioned culture medium promotes T. brucei stumpy formation in vitro, which is dependent on the integrity of the QS signalling pathway. Finally, we show that, in vivo, co-infection with T. congolense accelerates differentiation to stumpy forms in T. brucei, which is also QS dependent. These cross-species interactions have important implications for trypanosome virulence, transmission, competition and evolution in the field.

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This work was supported by a Wellcome Trust Investigator award (103740/Z/14/Z) and Royal Society Wolfson Research merit award (WM140045) to K.M. and a Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council studentship to E.S. The Centre for Immunity, Infection and Evolution is supported by a Strategic Award from the Wellcome Trust (095831). We thank M. Chase-Topping for assistance with the statistical analysis, M. Waterfall for assistance with the flow cytometry and J. Matthews for comments on the manuscript.

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  1. Centre for Immunity, Infection and Evolution, Institute for Immunology and Infection Research, School of Biological Sciences, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, EH9 3FL, UK

    • Eleanor Silvester
    • , Julie Young
    • , Alasdair Ivens
    •  & Keith R. Matthews


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K.R.M. conceived and supervised the study. E.S. and K.R.M. devised the experiments. E.S. and J.Y. planned and carried out the experiments. E.S., K.R.M. and A.I. collated, analysed and interpreted the data. K.R.M. and E.S. wrote the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Keith R. Matthews.

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