The little engine that could: Characterization of noncanonical components in the speed-variable flagellar motor of the symbiotic soil bacterium Sinorhizobium meliloti

TR Number



Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title


Virginia Tech


The bacterial flagellum is a fascinating corkscrew-shaped macromolecular rotary machine used primarily to propel bacterial cells through their environment via the conversion of chemical potential energy into rotational power and thrust. Flagella are the principal targets of complex chemotaxis systems, which allow microbes to navigate their habitats to locate favorable conditions and avoid harmful ones by continuous sampling of environmental compounds and cues. Flagella serve as surface and temperature sensors, mediators of host cell adherence by bacterial pathogens and symbionts alike, and important virulence factors for disease-causing microbes. They play several essential roles in accelerating the foundational stages of biofilm formation, during which bacteria build highly intricate microbial communities with increased resistance to predation and environmental assaults. Flagellum-mediated chemotaxis has broad and impactful implications in fields of bioremediation, targeted drug delivery, bacterial-mediated cancer therapy and diagnostics, and cross-kingdom horizontal gene transfer. While the core structural and functional components of flagella have been well characterized in the closely related enteric bacteria, Escherichia coli and Salmonella typhimurium, major departures from this paradigm have been identified in other diverse species that merit further investigation. Many bacteria employ additional reinforcement modules to surround and stabilize their more powerful flagellar motors and provide increased contact points in the inner membrane, the peptidoglycan sacculus, and, in Gram-negative bacteria, the outer membrane. Additionally, the soil-dwelling bacterium Sinorhizobium meliloti exhibits marked distinctions in the regulation, structure, and function of its navigation systems. S. meliloti is a nitrogen-fixing symbiont of the agronomically valuable leguminous plant, Medicago sativa Lucerne, and uses its coupled chemotaxis and flagellar motility systems to search for host plant roots to colonize. Following root colonization, the bacterium converts to a nitrogen-fixing factory for the plant and the combined influences of this symbiosis can quadruple the yields of the host. This dissertation is aimed at delivering a thorough representative overview of the processes facilitating bacterial flagellum-mediated chemotaxis and motility. Chapter 1 describes the interplay between chemotaxis and flagellar motility pathways as well as the structure, function, and regulation of these systems in several model bacteria. Particular emphasis is placed on the comparison of flagellar systems from the soil-dwelling legume symbiont, Sinorhizobium meliloti with other model systems, and a brief introduction is provided for its primary counterpart, the agronomically valuable legume, Medicago sativa, more commonly referred to as alfalfa. Chapter 2 embodies the first report of a flagellar system to require two copies of a protein known as FliL for its function. FliL is found in all bacterial flagellar systems reported to date but is only essential for some to drive motility. The more conserved copy of the protein has retained the title of FliL and several experiments to assay the proficiency of flagellar motor function revealed that in the absence of FliL swimming is essentially abolished as is the presence of flagella on the cell body. Flagellar motor activity and swimming proficiency of mutants lacking the FliL-paralog MotF was nearly as abysmal as those without FliL but flagellation was essentially normal indicating distinct roles for the two proteins. FliL is implicated in initial stator recruitment to the motor while MotF was found to serve as a power or speed modulator. A model to accommodate and explain the roles of these proteins in the flagellar motor of S. meliloti is provided. Chapter 3 links a never-before characterized flagellar protein, currently named Orf23, to a role in promoting maximum swimming velocity and perhaps stator alignment with the rotor in a peptidoglycan-dependent manner. The loss of LdtR, a transcriptional regulator of peptidoglycan-modification genes, caused defects in swimming motility that are restored only by removal of Orf23 or by replacing a nonpolar glycine with a polar serine in the periphery of stator units. Bioinformatics analyses, immunoblotting, and membrane topology reporter assays revealed that Orf23 is likely embedded in the inner membrane and that the remainder of the protein extends into the periplasm. Building on findings from Chapter 2, Orf23 is anticipated to influence stator positioning through interactions with MotF, FliL, and/or stator units directly. The chapter is concluded with the description of future experiments aimed to more thoroughly characterize Orf23. Altogether, this work increases the depth and breadth of knowledge regarding the composition and function of the speed-variable bacterial flagellar motor. We have identified several components required for stator incorporation and function, as well as an accessory component that improves stator performance. A wise society will draw inspiration from these fascinating and powerful machines to inform new technologies to achieve modern goals including targeted drug delivery, bioremediation, and perhaps one day our own exploration.



chemotaxis, flagellar basal body, proton channel plug, swimming motility, torque generation