Leishmania chagasi causes visceral leishmaniasis, a potentially fatal disease of humans. Within the sand fly vector, L. chagasi replicates as promastigotes which undergo complex changes in morphology as they progress from early stage procyclic promastigotes, to intermediate stage leptomonad and nectomonad promastigotes, and ultimately to terminal stage metacyclic promastigotes that are highly infective to vertebrates. This developmental progression is largely recapitulated in vitro using axenic promastigote cultures that have been passaged only a few times. Within a single passage (which takes about a week), axenic cultures progress from logarithmic to stationary growth phases; parasites within those growth phases progress from stages that do not have metacyclic cell properties to ones that do. Interestingly, repeated serial passage of promastigote cultures will result in cell populations that exhibit perturbations in developmental progression, in expression levels of surface macromolecules (major surface protease, MSP, and promastigote surface antigen, PSA), and in virulence properties, including resistance to serum lysis. Experiments were performed to determine whether there exists a direct relationship between promastigote developmental form and perturbations associated with repeated serial passage. Passage 2 to passage 4 L. chagasi cultures at stationary growth phase were predominately (>85%) comprised of metacyclic promastigotes and exhibited high resistance to serum lysis and high levels of MSP and PSA. Serial passaging 8, or more, times resulted in a stationary phase population that was largely (>85%) comprised of nectomonad promastigotes, almost completely devoid (<2%) of metacyclic promastigotes, and that exhibited low resistance to serum lysis and low levels of MSP and PSA. The study suggests that the loss of particular cell properties seen in cells from serially passaged cultures is principally due to a dramatic reduction in the proportion of metacyclic promastigotes. Additionally, the study suggests that serially passaged cultures may be a highly enriched source of nectomonad-stage promastigotes, a stage that has largely been characterized only in mixtures containing other promastigote forms.

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