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J Bacteriol. 2013 Feb;195(4):823-32. doi: 10.1128/JB.02024-12. Epub 2012 Dec 7.

Activity of Proteus mirabilis FliL is viscosity dependent and requires extragenic DNA.

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Department of Marine Biotechnology, University of Maryland Baltimore County, and Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology, Baltimore, MD, USA.


Proteus mirabilis is a urinary tract pathogen and well known for its ability to move over agar surfaces by flagellum-dependent swarming motility. When P. mirabilis encounters a highly viscous environment, e.g., an agar surface, it differentiates from short rods with few flagella to elongated, highly flagellated cells that lack septa and contain multiple nucleoids. The bacteria detect a surface by monitoring the rotation of their flagellar motors. This process involves an enigmatic flagellar protein called FliL, the first gene in an operon (fliLMNOPQR) that encodes proteins of the flagellar rotor switch complex and flagellar export apparatus. We used a fliL knockout mutant to gain further insight into the function of FliL. Loss of FliL results in cells that cannot swarm (Swr(-)) but do swim (Swm(+)) and produces cells that look like wild-type swarmer cells, termed "pseudoswarmer cells," that are elongated, contain multiple nucleoids, and lack septa. Unlike swarmer cells, pseudoswarmer cells are not hyperflagellated due to reduced expression of flaA (the gene encoding flagellin), despite an increased transcription of both flhD and fliA, two positive regulators of flagellar gene expression. We found that defects in fliL prevent viscosity-dependent sensing of a surface and viscosity-dependent induction of flaA transcription. Studies with fliL cells unexpectedly revealed that the fliL promoter, fliL coding region, and a portion of fliM DNA are needed to complement the Swr(-) phenotype. The data support a dual role for FliL as a critical link in sensing a surface and in the maintenance of flagellar rod integrity.

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