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The pirate in the microbe

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Pirates could have copied the technique they use to capture ships from bacteria. Like buccaneers who draw their boat to a target ship with grappling hooks, the single-cell organisms use threadlike appendages, called pili, to creep along a surface. A research team from the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces in Potsdam-Golm and University of Cologne have now developed a model to describe the organisms’ movement. Biologists have long known that microbes attach pili to a substrate and then haul themselves along by reeling them in. However, some microbes, such as Neisseria gonorrhoeae, the pathogen of gonorrhoea, extend their pili in all directions. The path they take thus depends largely on which pilus exerts the strongest pull. The researchers can now explain why bacteria nevertheless are able to travel along a straight line for at least one to two seconds. Detailed knowledge of this mechanism is furthering our understanding of how bacteria infect cells, and could shed light on ways to combat them.

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