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Natural populations of Trypanosoma cruzi, the agent of Chagas disease, have a complex multiclonal structure.


We have studied 15 gene loci coding for enzymes in 121 Trypanosoma cruzi stocks from a wide geographic range--from the United States and Mexico to Chile and southern Brazil. T. cruzi is diploid but reproduction is basically clonal, with very little if any sexuality remaining at present. We have identified 43 different clones by their genetic composition; the same genetic clone is often found in very distant places and in diverse hosts. There is much genetic heterogeneity among the different clones, and they cannot be readily classified into a few discrete groups that might represent natural taxa. These findings imply that the biological and medical characteristics need to be ascertained separately for each natural clone. The evidence indicates that clonal evolution is very ancient in T. cruzi. We propose two alternative hypotheses concerning the relationship between the biochemical diversity and the heterogeneity in other biological and medical characteristics of T. cruzi. One hypothesis is that the degree of diversity between strains simply reflects the time elapsed since their last common ancestor. The second hypothesis is that biological and medical heterogeneity is recent and reflects adaptation to different transmission cycles. A decision between the two hypotheses can be reached with appropriate studies, with important medical consequences.

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