African trypanosomes, parasites that cause human sleeping sickness, undergo a density-dependent differentiation in the bloodstream of their mammalian hosts. This process is driven by a released parasite-derived factor that causes parasites to accumulate in G1 and become quiescent. This is accompanied by morphological transformation to 'stumpy' forms that are adapted to survival and further development when taken up in the blood meal of tsetse flies, the vector for trypanosomiasis. Although the soluble signal driving differentiation to stumpy forms is unidentified, a recent genome-wide RNAi screen identified many of the intracellular signalling and effector molecules required for the response to this signal. These resemble components of nutritional starvation and quiescence pathways in other eukaryotes, suggesting that parasite development shares similarities with the adaptive quiescence of organisms such as yeasts and Dictyostelium in response to nutritional starvation and stress. Here, the trypanosome signalling pathway is discussed in the context of these conserved pathways and the possible contributions of opposing 'slender retainer' and 'stumpy inducer' arms described. As evolutionarily highly divergent eukaryotes, the organisation and conservation of this developmental pathway can provide insight into the developmental cycle of other protozoan parasites, as well as the adaptive and programmed developmental responses of all eukaryotic cells.
© 2015 The Authors. Molecular Microbiology published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.