Leishmania remains a major public health problem with 350 million people at risk, 12 million infected, and 2 million new infections per year. Despite the considerable progress in cellular and molecular biology and in evolutionary genetics since 1990, the debate on the population structure and reproductive mode of Leishmania is far from being settled and deserves further investigation. Two major hypotheses coexist: clonality versus sexuality. Because of the lack of clear evidence (experimental or biological confirmation) of sexuality in Leishmania parasites, until today it has been suggested and even accepted that Leishmania species were mainly clonal with infrequent genetic recombination.
Two recent publications, one on Leishmania major (an in vitro experimental study) and one on Leishmania braziliensis (a population genetics analysis), once again have challenged the hypothesis of clonal reproduction. The first study experimentally evidenced genetic recombination and proposed that Leishmania parasites are capable of having a sexual cycle consistent with meiotic processes inside the insect vector. The second investigation, based on population genetics studies, showed strong homozygosities, an observation that is incompatible with a predominantly clonal mode of reproduction at an ecological time scale (~20–500 generations). These studies highlight the need to advance the knowledge of Leishmania biology. This paper reviews the reasons stimulating the continued debate and then detail the next essential steps to be taken to clarify the Leishmania reproduction model. It widens the discussion to other Trypanosomatidae and show that the progress in Leishmania biology can improve our knowledge of the evolutionary genetics of American and African trypanosomes.
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