The bacterial flagellum and flagellar motor: structure, assembly and function

Adv Microb Physiol. 1991;32:109-72. doi: 10.1016/s0065-2911(08)60007-7.


The bacterial flagellum is a complex multicomponent structure which serves as the propulsive organelle for many species of bacteria. Rotation of the helical flagellar filament, driven by a proton-powered motor embedded in the cell wall, enables the flagellum to function as a screw propeller. It seems likely that almost all of the genes required for flagellar formation and function have been identified. Continuing analysis of the portions of the genome containing these genes may reveal the existence of a few more. Transcription of the flagellar genes is under the control of the products of a single operon, and so these genes constitute a regulon. Other controls, both transcriptional and post-transcriptional, have been identified. Many of these genes have been sequenced, and the information obtained will aid in the design of experiments to clarify the various regulatory mechanisms of the flagellar regulon. The flagellum is composed of several substructures. The long helical filament is connected via the flexible hook to the complex basal body which is located in the cell wall. The filament is composed of many copies of a single protein, and can adopt a number of distinct helical forms. Structural analyses of the filament are adding to our understanding of this dynamic polymer. The component proteins of the hook and filament have all been identified. Continuing studies on the structure of the basal body have revealed the presence of several hitherto unknown basal-body proteins, whose identities and functions have yet to be elucidated. The proteins essential for energizing the motor, the Mot and switch proteins, are thought to exist as multisubunit complexes peripheral to the basal body. These complexes have yet to be identified biochemically or morphologically. Not surprisingly, flagellar assembly is a complex process, occurring in several stages. Assembly occurs in a proximal-to-distal fashion; the basal body is assembled before the hook, and the hook before the filament. This pattern is also maintained within the filament, with monomers added at the distal end of the polymer; the same is presumably true of the other axial components. An exception to this general pattern is assembly of the Mot proteins into the motor, which appears to be possible at any time during flagellar assembly. With the identification of the genes encoding many of the flagellar proteins, the roles of these proteins in assembly is understood, but the function of a number of gene products in flagellar formation remains unknown.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Bacteria / cytology*
  • Bacteria / ultrastructure
  • Bacterial Physiological Phenomena
  • Flagella / physiology*
  • Flagella / ultrastructure