Torque-dependent remodeling of the bacterial flagellar motor

Wadhwa N, Phillips R, Berg HC, Proc Natl Acad Sci 116 (24) :11764-69 (2019).


Multisubunit protein complexes are ubiquitous in biology and perform a plethora of essential functions. Most of the scientific literature treats such assemblies as static: their function is assumed to be independent of their manner of assembly, and their structure is assumed to remain intact until they are degraded. Recent observations of the bacterial flagellar motor, among others, bring these notions into question. The torque-generating stator units of the motor assemble and disassemble in response to changes in load. Here, we used electrorotation to drive tethered cells forward, which decreases motor load, and measured the resulting stator dynamics. No disassembly occurred while the torque remained high, but all of the stator units were released when the motor was spun near the zero-torque speed. When the electrorotation was turned off, so that the load was again high, stator units were recruited, increasing motor speed in a stepwise fashion. A model in which speed affects the binding rate and torque affects the free energy of bound stator units captures the observed torque-dependent stator assembly dynamics, providing a quantitative framework for the environmentally regulated self-assembly of a major macromolecular machine.