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J Mol Biol. 2006 Jun 2;359(2):466-77. Epub 2006 Mar 29.

The type III flagellar export specificity switch is dependent on FliK ruler and a molecular clock.

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Graduate School of Frontier Biosciences, Osaka University, Osaka 565-0871, Japan.


Salmonella flagellar hook length is controlled at the level of export substrate specificity of the FlhB component of the type III flagellar export apparatus. FliK is believed to be the hook length sensor and interacts with FlhB to change its export specificity upon hook completion. To find properties of FliK expected of such a molecular ruler, we assayed binding of FliK to the hook and found that the N-terminal domain of FliK (FliK(N)) bound to the hook-capping protein FlgD with high affinity and to the hook protein FlgE with low affinity. To investigate a possible role of FlgE in hook length control, flgE mutants with partially impaired motility were isolated and analyzed. Eight flgE mutants obtained all formed flagellar filaments. The mutants produced significantly shorter hooks while the hook-type substrates such as FlgE, FliK and FlgD were secreted in large amounts, suggesting defective hook assembly with the mutant FlgE proteins. Upon overexpression, mutant FlgEs produced hooks of normal length and wild-type FlgE produced longer hooks. These results suggest that hook length is dependent on the hook polymerization rate and that the start of hook polymerization initiates a "time countdown" for the specificity switch to occur or for significant slow down of rod/hook-type export after hook length reaches around 55 nm for later infrequent FliK(C)-FlhB(C) interaction. We propose that FliK(N) acts as a flexible tape measure, but that hook length is also dependent on the hook elongation rate and a switch timing mechanism.

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