In the last decade, there has been a wide range of studies using a series of molecular markers to investigate the genotypic diversity of some of the important species of African trypanosomes. Here, we review this work and provide an update of our current understanding of the mechanisms that generate this diversity based on population genetic analysis. In parallel with field based studies, our knowledge of the key features of the system of genetic exchange in Trypanosoma brucei, based on laboratory analysis, has reached the point at which this system can be used as a tool to determine the genetic basis of a phenotype. In this context, we have outlined our current knowledge of the basis for phenotypic variation among strains of trypanosomes, and highlight that this is a relatively under researched area, except for work on drug resistance. There is clear evidence for 'strain'-specific variation in tsetse transmission, a range of virulence/pathogenesis phenotypes and the ability to cross the blood brain barrier. The potential for using genetic analysis to dissect these phenotypes is illustrated by the recent work defining a locus determining organomegaly for T. brucei. When these results are considered in relation to the body of research on the variability of the host response to infection, it is clear that there is a need to integrate the study of host and parasite diversity in relation to understanding infection outcome.