Altruism in Leishmania: apoptotic parasites are required for infectivity of metacyclic promastigotes

Posted by Kasra Hassani

Suppression of the innate immune response and inhibition of activation of phagocytes that would otherwise kill the parasites has long been established as mechanisms of immune evasion and persistence among Leishmania parasites.

In their paper, van Zandbergen et al. have indicated presence of a high ratio (more than 40%) of apoptotic cells in the metacyclic/stationary phage parasites. They have characterized these cells by occurrence of phosphatidyl serine (PS) in the outer leaflet of plasma membrane as well as PS-binding protein Anexin A5(AnxA5). The majority of AnxA5+ cells have been shown to be apoptotic and different in morphology to infective parasites and they have shown that depletion of these apoptotic cells from the infective population substantially abrogates infectivity.

Apoptotic cells induce production of TGF-beta and IL-10 which are anti-inflammatory cytokines; these cytokines are produced as well by neutrophils when they phagocyte apoptotic Leishmania. Apoptotic parasites also hamper secretion of TNF-alpha, all of which results in inactivation of neutrophils and later macrophages and their inability to kill the phagocytosed parasites.

This is an interesting example of altruism among single-cell populations; the authors have suggested that apoptosis is probably triggered in late log phase and stationary phase promastigotes in the sandfly midgut due to nutrient depletion prior to their entry into the mammalian host.