Intracellular parasitism: cell biological adaptations of parasitic protozoa to a life inside cells

Zoology (Jena). 2003;106(4):341-8. doi: 10.1078/0944-2006-00127.


Several protozoan parasites evade the host's immune defence because most of their development takes place inside specific host cells. Only a few of these protozoa live within the host cell cytosol. Most parasites are sequestered within membrane-bound compartments, collectively called 'vacuoles'. Recent advances in the cell biology of intracellular parasites have revealed fundamental differences in the strategies whereby such organisms gain entry into their respective host cells. These differences have important implications for host-parasite interaction and for nutrient acquisition by the parasite. Leishmania spp. take advantage of the phagocytic properties of their host cells and presumably contribute little to the uptake process. In contrast, apicomplexan parasites have developed highly specialised organelles, called micronemes and rhoptries, to actively invade a variety of nucleated cells and, in the case of Plasmodium falciparum, human erythrocytes. Following invasion, parasites use a multitude of strategies to protect themselves from the defence mechanisms of the parasitized cells. In addition, they induce novel pathways within the infected cell that allow a most efficient nutrient acquisition both from the host cell cytoplasm and from the extracellular environment. Parasite-induced changes of host cells are most apparent in erythrocytes infected with Plasmodium spp. Mammalian erythrocytes are deficient in de novo protein and lipid biosynthesis and, consequently, pathways which allow the transport of macromolecules and small solutes are established by metabolic activities of the parasite. Research into the cell biology of intracellular parasitism has identified fascinating phenomena some of which we are beginning to understand at a molecular level. They are fascinating because they allow insights into a very intimate interaction between two eukaryotic cells of entirely different phylogenetic origins.