Bacteria can change course almost instantaneously, zipping towards food or away from toxins. How do such simple organisms do something so complex? It’s all in the flagella, a tail-like structure with rotating helical filaments. The flagella work in unison to propel the cell forward by rotating counterclockwise and thus bundling together. When the flagella reverse their rotation to clockwise, they disrupt the bundle and make the cell tumble in place. When the flagella shift back to counterclockwise again, the bacteria set off on a new course.
This description of bacterial locomotion is well known, but the mechanisms that allow the flagella to shift gears from counterclockwise to clockwise have proven difficult to identify. Now, a new study bring us closer to answering this fundamental question and propose a new model describing how flagella manage this switch. Filaments in the flagella are powered by rotary motors that span the cell membrane. Things of beauty, these motors are tooled so precisely that they are nearly 100% efficient, and their direction is set by a rotor that can turn thousands of revolutions per minute. The rotor shifts from the forward-propelling counterclockwise to the tumble-inducing clockwise when chemical gradients tell bacteria they’ve gone astray, for example, away from food. This activates a cytoplasmic signaling protein that binds proteins in the rotor switch, changing the orientation of another switch protein called FliG and thereby reversing the rotor’s spin to clockwise.