Special Reviews

Generating and Exploiting Polarity in Bacteria

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Science  06 Dec 2002:
Vol. 298, Issue 5600, pp. 1942-1946
DOI: 10.1126/science.1072163

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Bacteria are often highly polarized, exhibiting specialized structures at or near the ends of the cell. Among such structures are actin-organizing centers, which mediate the movement of certain pathogenic bacteria within the cytoplasm of an animal host cell; organized arrays of membrane receptors, which govern chemosensory behavior in swimming bacteria; and asymmetrically positioned septa, which generate specialized progeny in differentiating bacteria. This polarization is orchestrated by complex and dynamic changes in the subcellular localization of signal transduction and cytoskeleton proteins as well as of specific regions of the chromosome. Recent work has provided information on how dynamic subcellular localization occurs and how it is exploited by the bacterial cell.

The main task of a bacterial cell is to survive and duplicate itself. The bacterium must replicate its genetic material and divide at the correct site in the cell and at the correct time in the cell cycle with high precision. Each kind of bacterium also executes its own strategy to find nutrients in its habitat and to cope with conditions of stress from its environment. This involves moving toward food, adapting to environmental extremes, and, in many cases, entering and exploiting a eukaryotic host. These activities often involve processes that take place at or near the poles of the cell. Here we explore some of the schemes bacteria use to orchestrate dynamic changes at their poles and how these polar events execute cellular functions.

In spite of their small size, bacteria have a remarkably complex internal organization and external architecture. Bacterial cells are inherently asymmetric, some more obviously so than others. The most easily recognized asymmetries involve surface structures, e.g., flagella, pili, and stalks that are preferentially assembled at one pole by many bacteria. “New” poles generated at the cell division plane differ from old poles from the previous round of cell division. Even in Escherichia coli, which is generally thought to be symmetrical, old poles are more static than new poles with respect to cell wall assembly (1), and they differ in the deposition of phospholipid domains (2). There are many instances of differential polar functions; among these is the preferential use of old poles when attaching to host cells as in the interaction ofBradyrhizobium with plant root hairs (3) or the polar pili-mediated attachment of the Pseudomonas aeruginosapathogen to tracheal epithelia (4). An unusual polar organelle that mediates directed motility on solid surfaces is found in the nonpathogenic bacterium Myxococcus xanthus. The gliding motility of this bacterium is propelled by a nozzle-like structure that squirts a polysaccharide-containing slime from the pole of the cell (5). Interestingly, M. xanthus, which has nozzles at both poles, can reverse direction by closing one nozzle and opening the other in response to end-to-end interactions between cells.

  • * To whom correspondence should be addressed. E-mail: shapiro{at}cmgm.stanford.edu

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