Bacterial flagellum is a helical filament by means of which bacteria swim. Each filament rotated by the motor at its base works as a screw that propels the cell, but it is not simply a rigid propeller. The filament is normally in a left-handed supercoiled form and several of them form a bundle when bacteria swim. Upon quick reversal of the motor rotation, which occurs every few seconds, the filament switches into a right-handed supercoil, making the filament bundle fall apart and enabling the cell to tumble for its tactic behavior. The filament is a tubular structure formed by helical assembly of single protein, flagellin, whose molecular mass is 51.5 kDa in the case of Salmonella typhimurium, which we study. The supercoiling of the filament is thought to involve two distinct subunit conformations and/or packing, whose mechanism is interesting in terms of conformational distinctness and adaptability of flagellin.
To understand the mechanisms of self-assembly and polymorphism of the filament, electron cryomicroscopy (EM) and X-ray fiber diffraction have been used to analyze the structures of two straight filaments with distinct helical symmetries.