Bloodsucking insects play a major role in the transmission of pathogens that cause major tropical diseases. Their capacity to transmit these diseases is directly associated with the availability and turnover of energy sources. Proline is the main readily-mobilizable fuel of the tsetse fly, which is the vector of sub-species of Trypanosoma brucei parasites that cause human sleeping sickness and are partly responsible for animal trypanosomiasis (Nagana disease) in sub-Saharan Africa.
Once trypanosomes are ingested from an infected host by the tsetse, the parasites encounter an environment that is poor in glucose (as it is rapidly metabolized by the fly) but rich in proline, which then becomes the main carbon source once the parasite differentiates into the first insect (procyclic) stage. In this work, we provide evidence on the essentiality of T. b. brucei proline catabolism for procyclic survival within the tsetse’s digestive tract, as this organism is unable to synthesize this amino acid and strictly depends on the proline provided by the fly.
We also show that parasites deficient in TbP5CDH, a mitochondrial enzyme involved in the proline degradative pathway, failed to proliferate in vitro, showed a diminished respiratory capacity, and showed compromised maintenance of energy levels and metabolic flux when proline was offered as the main carbon source.
Thus, the integrity of the trypanosome proline degradation pathway is needed to maintain essential functions related to parasite bioenergetics, replication and infectivity within the insect host. Our observations answer a long-standing question on the role of parasite proline metabolism in tsetse-trypanosome interplay.