Cilia play important roles in cell signaling, facilitated by the unique lipid environment of a ciliary membrane containing high concentrations of sterol-rich lipid rafts. The African trypanosome Trypanosoma brucei is a single-celled eukaryote with a single cilium/flagellum. We tested whether flagellar sterol enrichment results from selective flagellar partitioning of specific sterol species or from general enrichment of all sterols. While all sterols are enriched in the flagellum, cholesterol is especially enriched. T. brucei cycles between its mammalian host (bloodstream cell), in which it scavenges cholesterol, and its tsetse fly host (procyclic cell), in which it both scavenges cholesterol and synthesizes ergosterol. We wondered whether the insect and mammalian life cycle stages possess chemically different lipid rafts due to different sterol utilization. Treatment of bloodstream parasites with cholesterol-specific methyl-β-cyclodextrin disrupts both membrane liquid order and localization of a raft-associated ciliary membrane calcium sensor. Treatment with ergosterol-specific amphotericin B does not. The opposite results were observed with ergosterol-rich procyclic cells. Further, these agents have opposite effects on flagellar sterol enrichment and cell metabolism in the two life cycle stages. These findings illuminate differences in the lipid rafts of an organism employing life cycle-specific sterols and have implications for treatment.
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