Telomere and Subtelomere R-Loops and Antigenic Variation in Trypanosomes

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Journal of Molecular Biology


Trypanosoma brucei is a kinetoplastid parasite that causes African trypanosomiasis, which is fatal if left untreated. T. brucei regularly switches its major surface antigen, VSG, to evade the host immune responses. VSGs are exclusively expressed from subtelomeric expression sites (ESs) where VSG genes are flanked by upstream 70 bp repeats and downstream telomeric repeats. The telomere downstream of the active VSG is transcribed into a long-noncoding RNA (TERRA), which forms RNA:DNA hybrids (R-loops) with the telomeric DNA. At an elevated level, telomere R-loops cause more telomeric and subtelomeric double-strand breaks (DSBs) and increase VSG switching rate. In addition, stabilized R-loops are observed at the 70 bp repeats and immediately downstream of ES-linked VSGs in RNase H defective cells, which also have an increased amount of subtelomeric DSBs and more frequent VSG switching. Although subtelomere plasticity is expected to be beneficial to antigenic variation, severe defects in subtelomere integrity and stability increase cell lethality. Therefore, regulation of the telomere and 70 bp repeat R-loop levels is important for the balance between antigenic variation and cell fitness in T. brucei. In addition, the high level of the active ES transcription favors accumulation of R-loops at the telomere and 70 bp repeats, providing an intrinsic mechanism for local DSB formation, which is a strong inducer of VSG switching.