BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- A tiny but powerful engine that propels the bacterium Bacillus subtilis through liquids is disengaged from the corkscrew-like flagellum by a protein clutch, Indiana University Bloomington and Harvard University scientists have learned. Their report appears in this week's Science.
Scientists have long known what drives the flagellum to spin, but what causes the flagellum to stop spinning -- temporarily or permanently -- was unknown.
"We think it's pretty cool that evolving bacteria and human engineers arrived at a similar solution to the same problem," said IU Bloomington biologist Daniel Kearns, who led the project. "How do you temporarily stop a motor once it gets going?"
The action of the protein they discovered, EpsE, is very similar to that of a car clutch. In cars, the clutch controls whether a car's engine is connected to the parts that spin its wheels. With the engine and gears disengaged from each other, the car may continue to move, but only because of its prior momentum; the wheels are no longer powered.
EpsE is thought to "sit down," as Kearns describes it, on the flagellum's rotor, a donut-shaped structure at the base of the flagellum. EpsE's interaction with a rotor protein called FliG causes a shape change in the rotor that disengages it from the flagellum's proton-powered engine.
The discovery of EpsE and its function was accidental. Kearns and colleagues were actually interested in learning more about the genes that cause individual cells of B. subtilis to cease wandering in solitude and take up residence in a massively communal, stationary assemblage called a biofilm. The stability of biofilms can be jeopardized by hyperactive bacterial cells whose flagella continue to spin.
"We were trying to get at how the bacterium's ability to move and biofilm formation are balanced," Kearns said. "We were looking for the genes that affected whether the cell
|Contact: David Bricker|