The control of gene expression, and more significantly gene cohorts, requires tight transcriptional coordination and is an essential feature of probably all cells. In higher eukaryotes, the mechanisms used involve controlled modifications to both local and global DNA environments, principally through changes in chromatin structure as well as cis-element-driven mechanisms. Although the mechanisms regulating chromatin in terms of transcriptional permissiveness and the relation to developmental programmes and responses to the environment are becoming better understood for animal and fungal cells, it is only just beginning to become clear how these processes operate in other taxa, including the trypanosomatids. Recent advances are now illuminating how African trypanosomes regulate higher-order chromatin structure, and, further, how these mechanisms impact on the expression of major surface antigens that are of fundamental importance to life-cycle progression. It is now apparent that several mechanisms are rather more similar between animal and fungal cells and trypanosomes than it originally appeared, but some aspects do involve gene products unique to trypanosomes. Therefore, both evolutionarily common and novel mechanisms cohabit in trypanosomes, offering both important biological insights and possible therapeutic opportunity.