Protozoan parasites are early branching eukaryotes causing significant morbidity and mortality in humans and livestock. Single-celled parasites have evolved complex life cycles, which may involve multiple host organisms, and strategies to evade host immune responses. Consequently, two key aspects of virulence that underlie pathogenesis are parasite differentiation and antigenic variation, both of which require changes in the expressed genome. Complicating these requisite alterations in the parasite transcriptome is chromatin, which serves as a formidable barrier to DNA processes including transcription, repair, replication and recombination. Considerable progress has been made in the study of chromatin dynamics in other eukaryotes, and there is much to be gained in extending these analyses to protozoan parasites. Much of the work completed to date has focused on histone acetylation and methylation in the apicomplexans and trypanosomatids. As we describe in this review, such studies provide a unique vantage point of the evolutionary picture of eukaryotic cell development, and reveal unique phenomena that could be exploited pharmacologically to treat protozoal diseases.
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