Chair of Cell and Developmental Biology (Zoology I)

engstler lab

We study the adaptive and dynamic pleomorphism of parasites on the molecular, cellular and organismal level

Research synopsis

Yes, it’s true. We work on many, at first sight unrelated topics. What is the connection between antigenic variation and parasite motility? How is quorum sensing in trypanosomes related to tsetse biology? And how are these topics linked to the dynamics and structure of the cell surface?

The common denominator of all our interests is the evolutionary adaptation of the African trypanosome to host and vector. We have shown that incessant motility is essential for removing host antibodies from the parasite’s cell surface. For this to work, the structure of the main surface proteins has been shaped for high mobility, even at the molecular crowding threshold. We have shown that endocytosis in trypanosomes is very fast, which allows rapid uptake and destruction of immune effector molecules. Obviously, antibody clearance is only one line of host defence; antigenic variation is the major one. We have shown that VSG switching and trypanosome development are linked processes. The VSG expression site is the virulence hub that not only controls antigenic variation but can also trigger developmental progress - in the absence of the quorum sensing molecule SIF. What is SIF? We still don’t know, but we are working on its chemical nature. Maybe its already functional in the host skin? We will see.

It is the streamlined nature of parasites that makes it very difficult not to get scientifically diverted - from time to time. All cellular features of trypanosomes are reflective of their parasitic life style: they thrive in the mammalian host and prosper in the tsetse fly. You have to be quite flexible to master such a life.

And it needs an interdisciplinary team to (sometimes) tame the parasite.

Recent publications

Krüger T, Engstler M (2018) The Fantastic Voyage of the Trypanosome: A Protean Micromachine Perfected during 500 Million Years of Engineering. Micromachines 9(2), 63; doi:10.3390/mi9020063

Muthinja JM, Ripp J, Kruger T, Imle A, Haraszti T, Fackler OT, Spatz JP, Engstler M, Frischknecht F (2018) Tailored environments to study motile cells and pathogens. Cell Microbiol. DOI: 10.1111/cmi.12820

Bartossek T, Jones NG, Schäfer C, Cvitković M, Glogger M, Mott HR, Kuper J, Brennich M, Carrington M, Smith A-S, Fenz S, Kisker C, Engstler M. (2017) Structural basis for the shielding function of the dynamic 
trypanosome VSG coat. Nature Microbiology, 2017 Sep 11. doi: 10.1038/s41564-017-0013-6.[Epub ahead of print] PubMed PMID: 28894098.

Schuster, S., Krüger, T., Subota, I., Thusek, S., Rotureau, B., Beilhack, A., Engstler, M. (2017) Developmental adaptations of trypanosome motility to the tsetse fly host environments unravel a multifaceted in vivo microswimmer system. eLife, 2017 Aug 15;6. pii: e27656. doi: 10.7554/eLife.27656. PubMed PMID: 28807106; PubMedCentral PMCID: PMC5570225.

Zimmermann, H., Subota, I.; Batram, C, Kramer, S, Janzen, C, Jones, N, Engstler, M (2017) A Quorum Sensing-independent Path to Stumpy Development in Trypanosoma brucei. Plos Pathogens doi: 10.1371/journal.ppat.1006324

Glogger, M., Subota, I., Pezzarossa, A., Denecke, A.-L., Carrington, M., Fenz, S.F., Engstler, M. (2017) Facilitating trypanosome imaging, Experimental Parasitology doi: 10.1016/ j.exppara.2017.03.010.

Glogger, M; Stichler, S; Subota, I; Bertlein, S; Spindler, M; Tessmar, J; Groll, J; Engstler, M; Fenz, SF (2017) Live-cell super-resolution imaging of intrinsically fast moving flagellates, Journal of Physics D: Applied Physics,50,7,074004

Morriswood B, Engstler M. (2017) Let's get fISSical: fast in silico synchronization as a new tool for cell division cycle analysis. Parasitology. 2017 Feb 7:1-14. doi: 10.1017/S0031182017000038. [Epub ahead of print] PMID: 28166845


African sleeping sickness

Human trypanosomiasis and its animal form Nagana are a prime examples for the One Health concept

Antigenic variation

The exchange of surface coats is the phenotypic hallmark of antigenic variation. But in fact, this is just the tip of an iceberg

Host skin infection

Trypanosomes enter the mammalian host with the bite of a hungry tsetse.

What do they do in the skin?

Parasite Motility

The trypanosome flagellum always beats. Motion is essential for immune escape and tsetse passage - and it is a very complex business

Quorum Sensing

Trypanosomes limit the population size in the host by quorum sensing. What is the trigger?

Surface Coat Dynamics

The trypanosome VSG layer is a good model for fundamental studies on protein mobility.

Structure of the cell surface

The structure of the trypanosome surface coat is much more dynamic and flexible than generally assumed

Trafficking of GPI-proteins

Lipid-anchoring has implications on the sorting and trafficking of cell surface coat molecules

Tsetse biology and physics

The tsetse fly provides a self-contained environment for adaptive morphogenesis of trypanosome microswimmers


Nicole Herrmann May

Tulip Al-Hadawi

Noah Wetterich

Ngoc-Cam Phan

Timothy Wuppermann

Annika Schmid

Ngoc-Thao Vo

Moritz Bach

Franziska Schönhofer