How to make a spiral bacterium

Charles W. Wolgemuth, Yuki F. Inclan, Julie Quan, Sulav Mukherjee, George Oster, M. A.R. Koehl

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

31 Scopus citations


The motility of some kinds of bacteria depends on their spiral form, as does the virulence of certain pathogenic species. We propose a novel mechanism for the development of spiral shape in bacteria and the supercoiling of chains ('filaments') of many cells. Recently discovered actin-like proteins lying just under the cell wall form fibers that play a role in maintaining cell shape. Some species have a single actin-like fiber helically wrapped around the cell, while others have two fibers wrapped in the same direction. Here, we show that if these fibers elongate more slowly than growth lengthens the cell, the cell both twists and bends, taking on a spiral shape. We tested this mechanism using a mathematical model of expanding fiber-wound structures and via experiments that measure the shape changes of elongating physical models. Comparison of the model with in vivo experiments on stationary phase Caulobacter crescentus filaments provide the first evidence that mechanical stretching of cytoskeletal fibers influences cell morphology. Any hydraulic cylinder can spiral by this mechanism if it is reinforced by stretch-resistant fibers wrapped helically in the same direction, or shortened by contractile elements. This might be useful in the design of man-made actuators.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)189-199
Number of pages11
JournalPhysical Biology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 1 2005

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biophysics
  • Structural Biology
  • Molecular Biology
  • Cell Biology


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