Trichomonads, hydrogenosomes and drug resistance

Int J Parasitol. 1999 Feb;29(2):199-212. doi: 10.1016/s0020-7519(98)00155-6.


Trichomonas vaginalis and Tritrichomonas foetus are sexually transmitted pathogens of the genito-urinary tract of humans and cattle, respectively. These organisms are amitochondrial anaerobes possessing hydrogenosomes, double membrane-bound organelles involved in catabolic processes extending glycolysis. The oxidative decarboxylation of pyruvate in hydrogenosomes is coupled to ATP synthesis and linked to ferredoxin-mediated electron transport. This pathway is responsible for metabolic activation of 5-nitroimidazole drugs, such as metronidazole, used in chemotherapy of trichomoniasis. Prolonged cultivation of trichomonads under sublethal pressure of metronidazole results in development of drug resistance. In both pathogenic species the resistance develops in a multistep process involving a sequence of stages that differ in drug susceptibility and metabolic activities. Aerobic resistance, similar to that occurring in clinical isolates of T. vaginalis from treatment-refractory patients, appears as the earliest stage. The terminal stage is characterised by stable anaerobic resistance at which the parasites show very high levels of minimal lethal concentration for metronidazole under anaerobic conditions (approximately 1000 microg ml(-1)). The key event in the development of resistance is progressive decrease and eventual loss of the pyruvate:ferredoxin oxidoreductase so that the drug-activating process is averted. In T. vaginalis at least, the development of resistance is also accompanied by decreased expression of ferredoxin. The pyruvate:ferredoxin oxidoreductase deficiency completely precludes metronidazole activation in T. foetus, while T. vaginalis possesses an additional drug-activating system which must be eliminated before the full resistance is acquired. This alternative pathway involves the hydrogenosomal malic enzyme and NAD:ferredoxin oxidoreductase. Metronidazole-resistant trichomonads compensate for the hydrogenosomal deficiency by an increased rate of glycolysis and by changes in their cytosolic pathways. Trichomonas vaginalis enhances lactate fermentation while T. foetus activates pyruvate conversion to ethanol. Drug-resistant T. foetus also increases activity of the cytosolic NADP-dependent malic enzyme, to enhance the pyruvate producing bypass and provide NADPH required by alcohol dehydrogenase. Production of succinate by this species is abolished. Metabolic changes accompanying in-vitro development of metronidazole resistance demonstrate the versatility of trichomonad metabolism and provide an interesting example of how unicellular eukaryotes can adjust their metabolism in response to the pressure of an unfavorable environment.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antitrichomonal Agents / metabolism
  • Antitrichomonal Agents / pharmacology*
  • Drug Resistance
  • Humans
  • Hydrogen / metabolism
  • Metronidazole / metabolism
  • Metronidazole / pharmacology*
  • Organelles / metabolism*
  • Trichomonas vaginalis / drug effects*
  • Trichomonas vaginalis / growth & development
  • Trichomonas vaginalis / metabolism
  • Trichomonas vaginalis / ultrastructure
  • Tritrichomonas foetus / drug effects*
  • Tritrichomonas foetus / growth & development
  • Tritrichomonas foetus / metabolism
  • Tritrichomonas foetus / ultrastructure


  • Antitrichomonal Agents
  • Metronidazole
  • Hydrogen