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J Bacteriol. 1968 Mar;95(3):775-81.

Salt-induced contraction of bacterial cell walls.


Intact Bacillus megaterium cells were found to contract as much as 26% in terms of dextran-impermeable volume when transferred from water to unbuffered, non-plasmolyzing NaCl solutions. This shrinkage appeared to be primarily due to electrostatic wall contraction rather than to any osmotic response of the cells. A variety of salts (but not sucrose) added to water suspensions of isolated cell walls caused protons to be released from the walls with resultant lowering of suspension pH and contraction of the structures. In effect, B. megaterium walls behaved as flexible, amphoteric polyelectrolytes, and their compactness in aqueous suspensions was affected by changes in environmental ionic strength and pH. Isolated walls were most compact in low ionic strength media with a pH of about 4, a value close to the apparent isoelectric pH of wall peptidoglycan. Electrostatic attractions appeared to play a major role in determining the compactness of highly contracted walls, and the walls responded to increased environmental ionic strength by expanding. In contrast, electrostatic repulsions were dominant in highly expanded walls, and increased environmental ionic strength induced wall contraction. Walls of whole bacteria also shrank when the cells were plasmolyzed. This second type of contraction seemed to result from relief of wall tension during plasmolysis, and it could be induced with nonionic solutes. Thus, cell wall tone in B. megaterium appeared to be set both by mechanical tension and by electrostatic interactions among wall ions.

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