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J Mol Biol. 2013 Mar 11;425(5):914-28. doi: 10.1016/j.jmb.2012.12.007. Epub 2012 Dec 26.

A "mechanistic" explanation of the multiple helical forms adopted by bacterial flagellar filaments.

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Department of Engineering, University of Cambridge, Trumpington Street, Cambridge CB2 1PZ, UK.


The corkscrew-like flagellar filaments emerging from the surface of bacteria such as Salmonella typhimurium propel the cells toward nutrient and away from repellents. This kind of motility depends upon the ability of the flagellar filaments to adopt a range of distinct helical forms. A filament is typically constructed from ~30,000 identical flagellin molecules, which self-assemble into a tubular structure containing 11 near-longitudinal protofilaments. A "mechanical" model, in which the flagellin building block has the capacity to switch between two principal interfacial states, predicts that the filament can assemble into a "canonical" family of 12 distinct helical forms, each having unique curvature and twist: these include two "extreme" straight forms having left- and right-handed twists, respectively, and 10 intermediate helical forms. Measured shapes of the filaments correspond well with predictions of the model. This report is concerned with two unanswered questions. First, what properties of the flagellin determine which of the 12 discrete forms is preferred? Second, how does the interfacial "switch" work, at a molecular level? Our proposed solution of these problems is based mainly on a detailed examination of differences between the available electron cryo-microscopy structures of the straight L and R filaments, respectively.

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