Background: Many microorganisms, including myxobacteria, cyanobacteria, and flexibacteria, move by gliding. Although gliding always describes a slow surface-associated translocation in the direction of the cell's long axis, it can result from two very different propulsion mechanisms: social (S) motility and adventurous (A) motility. The force for S motility is generated by retraction of type 4 pili. A motility may be associated with the extrusion of slime, but evidence has been lacking, and how force might be generated has remained an enigma. Recently, nozzle-like structures were discovered in cyanobacteria from which slime emanated at the same rate at which the bacteria moved. This strongly implicates slime extrusion as a propulsion mechanism for gliding.
Results: Here we show that similar but smaller nozzle-like structures are found in Myxococcus xanthus and that they are clustered at both cell poles, where one might expect propulsive organelles. Furthermore, light and electron microscopical observations show that slime is secreted in ribbons from the ends of cells. To test whether the slime propulsion hypothesis is physically reasonable, we construct a mathematical model of the slime nozzle to see if it can generate a force sufficient to propel M. xanthus at the observed velocities. The model assumes that the hydration of slime, a cationic polyelectrolyte, is the force-generating mechanism.
Conclusions: The discovery of nozzle-like organelles in various gliding bacteria suggests their role in prokaryotic gliding. Our calculations and our observations of slime trails demonstrate that slime extrusion from such nozzles can account for most of the observed properties of A motile gliding.