In the mammalian host, the unicellular flagellate Trypanosoma brucei is covered by a dense surface coat that consists of a single species of macromolecule, the membrane form of the variant surface glycoprotein (mfVSG). After uptake by the insect vector, the tsetse fly, bloodstream-form trypanosomes differentiate to procyclic forms in the fly midgut. Differentiation is characterized by the loss of the mfVSG coat and the acquisition of a new surface glycoprotein, procyclin. In this study, the change in surface glycoprotein composition during differentiation was investigated in vitro. After triggering differentiation, a rapid increase in procyclin-specific mRNA was observed. In contrast, there was a lag of several hours before procyclin could be detected. Procyclin was incorporated and uniformly distributed in the surface coat. The VSG coat was subsequently shed. For a single cell, it took 12-16 h to express a maximum level of procyclin at the surface while the loss of the VSG coat required approximately 4 h. The data are discussed in terms of the possible molecular arrangement of mfVSG and procyclin at the cell surface. Molecular modeling data suggest that a (Asp-Pro)2 (Glu-Pro)22-29 repeat in procyclin assumes a cylindrical shape 14-18 nm in length and 0.9 nm in diameter. This extended shape would enable procyclin to interdigitate between the mfVSG molecules during differentiation, exposing epitopes beyond the 12-15-nm-thick VSG coat.

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