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Microbiol Rev. Mar 1994; 58(1): 94–144.
PMCID: PMC372955

Gas vesicles.

Abstract

The gas vesicle is a hollow structure made of protein. It usually has the form of a cylindrical tube closed by conical end caps. Gas vesicles occur in five phyla of the Bacteria and two groups of the Archaea, but they are mostly restricted to planktonic microorganisms, in which they provide buoyancy. By regulating their relative gas vesicle content aquatic microbes are able to perform vertical migrations. In slowly growing organisms such movements are made more efficiently than by swimming with flagella. The gas vesicle is impermeable to liquid water, but it is highly permeable to gases and is normally filled with air. It is a rigid structure of low compressibility, but it collapses flat under a certain critical pressure and buoyancy is then lost. Gas vesicles in different organisms vary in width, from 45 to > 200 nm; in accordance with engineering principles the narrower ones are stronger (have higher critical pressures) than wide ones, but they contain less gas space per wall volume and are therefore less efficient at providing buoyancy. A survey of gas-vacuolate cyanobacteria reveals that there has been natural selection for gas vesicles of the maximum width permitted by the pressure encountered in the natural environment, which is mainly determined by cell turgor pressure and water depth. Gas vesicle width is genetically determined, perhaps through the amino acid sequence of one of the constituent proteins. Up to 14 genes have been implicated in gas vesicle production, but so far the products of only two have been shown to be present in the gas vesicle: GvpA makes the ribs that form the structure, and GvpC binds to the outside of the ribs and stiffens the structure against collapse. The evolution of the gas vesicle is discussed in relation to the homologies of these proteins.

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