Resolution of the species problem in African trypanosomes

WC Gibson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

62 Citations (Scopus)


There is a general assumption that eukaryote species are demarcated by morphological or genetic discontinuities. This stems from the idea that species are defined by the ability of individuals to mate and produce viable progeny. At the microscopic level, where organisms often proliferate more by asexual than sexual reproduction, this tidy classification system breaks down and species definition becomes messy and problematic. The dearth of morphological characters to distinguish microbial species has led to the widespread application of molecular methods for identification. As well as providing molecular markers for species identification, gene sequencing has generated the data for accurate estimation of relatedness between different populations of microbes. This has led to recognition of conflicts between current taxonomic designations and phylogenetic placement. In the case of microbial pathogens, the extent to which taxonomy has been driven by utilitarian rather than biological considerations has been made explicit by molecular phylogenetic analysis. These issues are discussed with reference to the taxonomy of the African trypanosomes, where pathogenicity, host range and distribution have been influential in the designation of species and subspecies. Effectively, the taxonomic units recognised are those that are meaningful in terms of human or animal disease. The underlying genetic differences separating the currently recognised trypanosome taxa are not consistent, ranging from genome-wide divergence to presence/absence of a single gene. Nevertheless, if even a minor genetic difference reflects adaptation to a particular parasitic niche, for example, in Trypanosoma brucei rhodesiense, the presence of a single gene conferring the ability to infect humans, then it can prove useful as an identification tag for the taxon occupying that niche. Thus, the species problem can be resolved by bringing together considerations of utility, genetic difference and adaptation.
Translated title of the contributionResolution of the species problem in African trypanosomes
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)829 - 838
Number of pages10
JournalInternational Journal for Parasitology
Volume37 (8-9)
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2007

Bibliographical note

Publisher: Elsevier


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