African trypanosomes cause devastating disease in sub-Saharan Africa in humans and livestock. The parasite lives extracellularly within the bloodstream of mammalian hosts and is transmitted by blood-feeding tsetse flies. In the blood, trypanosomes exhibit two developmental forms: the slender form and the stumpy form. The slender form proliferates in the bloodstream, establishes the parasite numbers and avoids host immunity through antigenic variation. The stumpy form, in contrast, is non-proliferative and is adapted for transmission. Here, we overview the features of slender and stumpy form parasites in terms of their cytological and molecular characteristics and discuss how these contribute to their distinct biological functions. Thereafter, we describe the technical developments that have enabled recent discoveries that uncover how the slender to stumpy transition is enacted in molecular terms. Finally, we highlight new understanding of how control of the balance between slender and stumpy form parasites interfaces with other components of the infection dynamic of trypanosomes in their mammalian hosts. This interplay between the host environment and the parasite’s developmental biology may expose new vulnerabilities to therapeutic attack or reveal where drug control may be thwarted by the biological complexity of the parasite’s lifestyle.
This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License
which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited