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Adv Microb Physiol. 1999;41:229-89.

Bacterial tactic responses.

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  • 1Department of Biochemistry, University of Oxford, UK.


Many, if not most, bacterial species swim. The synthesis and operation of the flagellum, the most complex organelle of a bacterium, takes a significant percentage of cellular energy, particularly in the nutrient limited environments in which many motile species are found. It is obvious that motility accords cells a survival advantage over non-motile mutants under normal, poorly mixed conditions and is an important determinant in the development of many associations between bacteria and other organisms, whether as pathogens or symbionts and in colonization of niches and the development of biofilms. This survival advantage is the result of sensory control of swimming behaviour. Although too small to sense a gradient along the length of the cell, and unable to swim great distances because of buffetting by Brownian motion and the curvature resulting from a rotating flagellum, bacteria can bias their random swimming direction towards a more favourable environment. The favourable environment will vary from species to species and there is now evidence that in many species this can change depending on the current physiological growth state of the cell. In general, bacteria sense changes in a range of nutrients and toxins, compounds altering electron transport, acceptors or donors into the electron transport chain, pH, temperature and even the magnetic field of the Earth. The sensory signals are balanced, and may be balanced with other sensory pathways such as quorum sensing, to identify the optimum current environment. The central sensory pathway in this process is common to most bacteria and most effectors. The environmental change is sensed by a sensory protein. In most species examined this is a transmembrane protein, sensing the external environment, but there is increasing evidence for additional cytoplasmic receptors in many species. All receptors, whether sensing sugars, amino acids or oxygen, share a cytoplasmic signalling domain that controls the activity of a histidine protein kinase, CheA, via a linker protein, CheW. A reduction in an attractant generally leads to the increased autophosphorylation of CheA. CheA passes its phosphate to a small, single domain response regulator, CheY. CheY-P can interact with the flagellar motor to cause it to change rotational direction or stop. Signal termination either via a protein, CheZ, which increases the dephosphorylation rate of CheY-P or via a second CheY which acts as a phosphate sink, allows the cell to swim off again, usually in a new direction. In addition to signal termination the receptor must be reset, and this occurs via methylation of the receptor to return it to a non-signalling conformation. The way in which bacteria use these systems to move to optimum environments and the interaction of the different sensory pathways to produce species-specific behavioural response will be the subject of this review.

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