Sliding motility in mycobacteria

J Bacteriol. 1999 Dec;181(23):7331-8. doi: 10.1128/JB.181.23.7331-7338.1999.


Mycobacteria are nonflagellated gram-positive microorganisms. Previously thought to be nonmotile, we show here that Mycobacterium smegmatis can spread on the surface of growth medium by a sliding mechanism. M. smegmatis spreads as a monolayer of cells which are arranged in pseudofilaments by close cell-to-cell contacts, predominantly along their longitudinal axis. The monolayer moves away from the inoculation point as a unit with only minor rearrangements. No extracellular structures such as pili or fimbriae appear to be involved in this process. The ability to translocate over the surface correlates with the presence of glycopeptidolipids, a mycobacterium-specific class of amphiphilic molecules located in the outermost layer of the cell envelope. We present evidence that surface motility is not restricted to M. smegmatis but is also a property of the slow-growing opportunistic pathogen M. avium. This form of motility could play an important role in surface colonization by mycobacteria in the environment as well as in the host.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Agar / metabolism
  • Chromatography, Thin Layer
  • Culture Media / metabolism
  • Glycolipids / physiology
  • Glycopeptides / physiology
  • Microscopy, Electron
  • Microscopy, Phase-Contrast
  • Movement
  • Mycobacterium avium / physiology*
  • Mycobacterium smegmatis / growth & development
  • Mycobacterium smegmatis / physiology*
  • Phenotype
  • Sepharose / metabolism
  • Time Factors


  • Culture Media
  • Glycolipids
  • Glycopeptides
  • Agar
  • Sepharose