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Int J Parasitol. 2001 Oct;31(12):1311-20.

Life in vacuoles--nutrient acquisition by Leishmania amastigotes.

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  • 1Institute of Biomedical and Life Sciences, Division of Infection and Immunity, Joseph Black Building, University of Glasgow, Glasgow G12 8QQ, UK.


Leishmania have a digenetic life cycle, involving a motile, extracellular stage (promastigote) which parasitises the alimentary tract of a sandfly vector. Bloodfeeding activity by an infected sandfly can result in transmission of infective (metacyclic) promastigotes to mammalian hosts, including humans. Leishmania promastigotes are rapidly phagocytosed but may survive and transform into non-motile amastigote forms which can persist as intracellular parasites. Leishmania amastigotes multiply in an acidic intracellular compartment, the parasitophorous vacuole. pH plays a central role in the developmental switch between promastigote and amastigote stages, and amastigotes are metabolically most active when their environment is acidic, although the cytoplasm of the amastigote is regulated at near-neutral pH by an active process of proton extrusion. A steep proton gradient is thus maintained across the amastigote surface and all membrane processes must be adapted to function under these conditions. Amastigote uptake systems for glucose, amino acids, nucleosides and polyamines are optimally active at acidic pH. Promastigote uptake systems are kinetically distinct and function optimally at more neutral environmental pH, indicating that membrane transport activity is developmentally regulated. The nutrient environment encountered by amastigotes is not well understood but the parasitophorous vacuole can fuse with endosomes, phagosomes and autophagosomes, suggesting that a diverse range of macromolecules will be present. The parasitophorous vacuole is a hydrolytic compartment in which such material will be rapidly degraded to low molecular weight components which are typical substrates for membrane transporters. Amastigote surface transporters must compete for these substrates with equivalent host transporters in the membrane of the parasitophorous vacuole. The elaboration of accumulative transporters with high affinity will be beneficial to amastigotes in this environment. The influence of environmental pH on membrane transporter function is discussed, with emphasis on the potential role of a transmembrane proton gradient in active, high affinity transport.

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