Trypanosoma brucei escapes destruction by the host immune system by regularly replacing its Variant Surface Glycoprotein (VSG) coat. The VSG is expressed in a VSG expression site, together with expression site associated gene (ESAG) 6 and 7, encoding the heterodimeric transferrin receptor (Tf-R). There are around 20 VSG expression sites, and trypanosomes can change the site that is active. Since ESAG6 and 7 in different expression sites differ somewhat in sequence, expression site switching results in the production of a slightly different Tf-R. We have studied the physiological relevance of Tf-R variation for the survival of T. brucei in mammalian sera. Trypanosomes with an active 221 expression site, encoding a Tf-R with a very low affinity for canine Tf (Kd>1 microM), were cultured in canine serum based medium. This resulted in selection of trypanosomes that had switched to the VO2, the 223 or the bR-2 expression site, each encoding a Tf-R with higher affinity for canine Tf than the 221 site Tf-R. Adding bovine Tf to the medium could prevent the switch, indicating that the low uptake of Tf provided the selection against 221 trypanosomes. Horse serum based medium also induced switching to the VO2 expression site, but this was not prevented by bovine Tf. In the presence of physiological concentrations of anti-Tf-R antibody, only a high-affinity Tf allowed the growth of 221 Tf-R expressing trypanosomes. Our results suggest that a high-affinity Tf-R not only ensures efficient Tf uptake, but is also required to allow sufficient iron uptake by the trypanosome in the presence of anti-Tf-R antibodies.