A mother cell giving rise to offspring usually needs to choose the site of cytokinesis carefully, as this will determine the size and shape of the daughter cells. Rod-shaped bacteria that divide by binary fission, such as Escherichia coli, often mark their cell division sites at their cell midpoint so that daughter cells are roughly equivalent in size and shape. So how does E. coli know where its middle is? Its cell poles are defined by the previous cell division, but, because E. coli grows by incorporating new cell wall and membrane uniformly along its length, the future cell division site at mid-cell is newly made and has no known pre-existing markers. One way to select the new mid-cell site would be to measure the distance from the two opposing cell poles, using a system that could recognize markers at those poles and define the spot furthest from both markers. This would require that both polar markers act negatively on cell division at equivalent intensities. The result would be a concentration gradient, with the lowest concentration of the negative regulator at the cell midpoint, the greatest distance from both cell poles. It turns out that E. coli and some other rod-shaped bacteria select their cell midpoint using such a negatively acting morphogen gradient, set up by the Min system, which is the focus of this Primer. As is true for many fascinating molecular mechanisms, the first inkling came from the behavior of cells in which this system was broken.
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