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Leishmania infections involve an acute phase of replication within macrophages, typically associated with pathology. After recovery parasites persist for long periods, which can lead to severe disease upon reactivation. Unlike the role of host factors, parasite factors affecting persistence are poorly understood. Leishmania major lacking phosphoglycans (lpg2-) were unable to survive in sand flies and macrophages, but retained the ability to persist indefinitely in the mammalian host without inducing disease. The L. major lpg2- thus provides a platform for probing parasite factors implicated in persistence and its role in disease and immunity.