The bacterial magnetosome is a unique prokaryotic organelle comprising magnetic mineral crystals surrounded by a phospholipid bilayer. These inclusions are biomineralized by the magnetotactic bacteria which are ubiquitous, aquatic, motile microorganisms. Magnetosomes cause cells of magnetotactic bacteria to passively align and swim along the Earth's magnetic field lines, as miniature motile compass needles. These specialized compartments consist of a phospholipid bilayer membrane surrounding magnetic crystals of magnetite (Fe3O4) or greigite (Fe3S4). The morphology of these membrane-bound crystals varies by species with a nominal magnetic domain size between 35 and 120 nm. Almost all magnetotactic bacteria arrange their magnetosomes in a chain within the cell there by maximizing the magnetic dipole moment of the cell. It is presumed that magnetotactic bacteria use magnetotaxis in conjunction with chemotaxis to locate and maintain an optimum position for growth and survival based on chemistry, redox and physiology in aquatic habitats with vertical chemical concentration and redox gradients. The biosynthesis of magnetosomes is a complex process that involves several distinct steps including cytoplasmic membrane modifications, iron uptake and transport, initiation of crystallization, crystal maturation and magnetosome chain formation. While many mechanistic details remain unresolved, magnetotactic bacteria appear to contain the genetic determinants for magnetosome biomineralization within their genomes in clusters of genes that make up what is referred to as the magnetosome gene island in some species. In addition, magnetosomes contain a unique set of proteins, not present in other cellular fractions, which control the biomineralization process. Through the development of genetic systems, proteomic and genomic work, and the use of molecular and biochemical tools, the functions of a number of magnetosome membrane proteins have been demonstrated and the molecular mechanism for the biomineralization of magnetosomes in these organisms is beginning to be revealed.
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