BACKGROUND: Genetic engineering with luciferase reporter genes allows monitoring Trypanosoma brucei (T.b.) infections in mice by in vivo bioluminescence imaging (BLI). Until recently, luminescent T.b. models were based on Renilla luciferase (RLuc) activity. Our study aimed at evaluating red-shifted luciferases for in vivo BLI in a set of diverse T.b. strains of all three subspecies, including some recently isolated from human patients.
METHODOLOGY/PRINCIPAL FINDINGS: We transfected T.b. brucei, T.b. rhodesiense and T.b. gambiense strains with either RLuc, click beetle red (CBR) or Photinus pyralis RE9 (PpyRE9) luciferase and characterised their in vitro luciferase activity, growth profile and drug sensitivity, and their potential for in vivo BLI. Compared to RLuc, the red-shifted luciferases, CBR and PpyRE9, allow tracking of T.b. brucei AnTaR 1 trypanosomes with higher details on tissue distribution, and PpyRE9 allows detection of the parasites with a sensitivity of at least one order of magnitude higher than CBR luciferase. With CBR-tagged T.b. gambiense LiTaR1, T.b. rhodesiense RUMPHI and T.b. gambiense 348 BT in an acute, subacute and chronic infection model respectively, we observed differences in parasite tropism for murine tissues during in vivo BLI. Ex vivo BLI on the brain confirmed central nervous system infection by all luminescent strains of T.b. brucei AnTaR 1, T.b. rhodesiense RUMPHI and T.b. gambiense 348 BT.
CONCLUSIONS/SIGNIFICANCE: We established a genetically and phenotypically diverse collection of bioluminescent T.b. brucei, T.b. gambiense and T.b. rhodesiense strains, including drug resistant strains. For in vivo BLI monitoring of murine infections, we recommend trypanosome strains transfected with red-shifted luciferase reporter genes, such as CBR and PpyRE9. Red-shifted luciferases can be detected with a higher sensitivity in vivo and at the same time they improve the spatial resolution of the parasites in the entire body due to the better kinetics of their substrate D-luciferin.