Cell shape matters across the kingdoms of life, and cells have the remarkable capacity to define and maintain specific shapes and sizes. But how are the shapes of micron-sized cells determined from the coordinated activities of nanometer-sized proteins? Here, we review general principles that have surfaced through the study of rod-shaped bacterial growth. Imaging approaches have revealed that polymers of the actin homolog MreB play a central role. MreB both senses and changes cell shape, thereby generating a self-organizing feedback system for shape maintenance. At the molecular level, structural and computational studies indicate that MreB filaments exhibit tunable mechanical properties that explain their preference for certain geometries and orientations along the cylindrical cell body. We illustrate the regulatory landscape of rod-shape formation and the connectivity between cell shape, cell growth, and other aspects of cell physiology. These discoveries provide a framework for future investigations into the architecture and construction of microbes.
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