The pathogenic African trypanosomes have a unique mechanism for antigenic variation. Each cell is covered by a surface coat consisting of about seven million essentially identical glycoprotein molecules drawn from a large repertoire of variants, each encoded by an individual gene. Amino acid sequence variation extends throughout the molecule but reduces from the amino terminus to the carboxy terminus, where certain features, especially the grouping of cysteine residues, are quite conserved. The range of diversity within the thousand or so variant glycoprotein genes that exist in each cell is large. New variants may arise instantaneously by segmental gene conversion. Variant surface glycoproteins are synthesized with amino terminal signal sequences and hydrophobic carboxy terminal tails. The tails are extraordinarily conserved. After synthesis, they are replaced by a complex glycolipid structure in which myristic (dodecanoic) acid serves to anchor the polypeptide to the surface membrane. Enzymic cleavage of myristic acid releases variant glycoproteins from the surface coat.