Nanoscale-length control of the flagellar driveshaft requires hitting the tethered outer membrane

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Science  14 Apr 2017:
Vol. 356, Issue 6334, pp. 197-200
DOI: 10.1126/science.aam6512

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How the flagellum knows when to stop

The bacterial flagellum is important in bacterial pathogenesis and biofilm formation. It is a rotary nanomotor that allows bacteria to propel themselves through liquids and across surfaces. Researchers interested in nanoscale robotics use the bacterial flagellum as a model for a machine that self-assembles on the nanoscale. Cohen et al. examined exactly how the flagellum precisely measures its shaft so that it spans, but does not extend beyond the edge of, the periplasm. The growing flagellum uses a mechanism by which it “senses” when it hits the outer membrane and stops growing. Changing the width of the periplasmic space by remodeling a particular lipid changed the length of the flagellar shaft.

Science, this issue p. 197


The bacterial flagellum exemplifies a system where even small deviations from the highly regulated flagellar assembly process can abolish motility and cause negative physiological outcomes. Consequently, bacteria have evolved elegant and robust regulatory mechanisms to ensure that flagellar morphogenesis follows a defined path, with each component self-assembling to predetermined dimensions. The flagellar rod acts as a driveshaft to transmit torque from the cytoplasmic rotor to the external filament. The rod self-assembles to a defined length of ~25 nanometers. Here, we provide evidence that rod length is limited by the width of the periplasmic space between the inner and outer membranes. The length of Braun's lipoprotein determines periplasmic width by tethering the outer membrane to the peptidoglycan layer.

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