Direct measurement of helical cell motion of the spirochete leptospira

Biophys J. 2014 Jan 7;106(1):47-54. doi: 10.1016/j.bpj.2013.11.1118.


Leptospira are spirochete bacteria distinguished by a short-pitch coiled body and intracellular flagella. Leptospira cells swim in liquid with an asymmetric morphology of the cell body; the anterior end has a long-pitch spiral shape (S-end) and the posterior end is hook-shaped (H-end). Although the S-end and the coiled cell body called the protoplasmic cylinder are thought to be responsible for propulsion together, most observations on the motion mechanism have remained qualitative. In this study, we analyzed the swimming speed and rotation rate of the S-end, protoplasmic cylinder, and H-end of individual Leptospira cells by one-sided dark-field microscopy. At various viscosities of media containing different concentrations of Ficoll, the rotation rate of the S-end and protoplasmic cylinder showed a clear correlation with the swimming speed, suggesting that these two helical parts play a central role in the motion of Leptospira. In contrast, the H-end rotation rate was unstable and showed much less correlation with the swimming speed. Forces produced by the rotation of the S-end and protoplasmic cylinder showed that these two helical parts contribute to propulsion at nearly equal magnitude. Torque generated by each part, also obtained from experimental motion parameters, indicated that the flagellar motor can generate torque >4000 pN nm, twice as large as that of Escherichia coli. Furthermore, the S-end torque was found to show a markedly larger fluctuation than the protoplasmic cylinder torque, suggesting that the unstable H-end rotation might be mechanically related to changes in the S-end rotation rate for torque balance of the entire cell. Variations in torque at the anterior and posterior ends of the Leptospira cell body could be transmitted from one end to the other through the cell body to coordinate the morphological transformations of the two ends for a rapid change in the swimming direction.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Leptospira / physiology*
  • Motion*
  • Movement
  • Torque
  • Viscosity