Form equals function? Bacterial shape and its consequences for pathogenesis


E-mail; Tel. (+1) 212 342 3731; Fax (+1) 212 305 1468.


Bacteria exhibit a wide variety of morphologies. This could simply be a consequence of an elaboration of bacterial cellular architecture akin to the famous decorative but not structurally essential Spandrels in the Basilica di San Marco in Venice that are a side-effect of an adaptation, rather than a direct product of natural selection. However, it is more likely that particular morphologies facilitate a specific function in cellular physiology. Two recent publications including one in this issue of Molecular Microbiology and another in Cell provide new insights into the molecular basis for the helical shape of the bacterium Helicobacter pylori and the role of this shape in pathogenesis. They identify a novel endopeptidase that is necessary to generate the helical shape by processing the peptidoglycan and report that catalytically inactive mutants lead to defects in colonization that appear to be independent of an effect on cellular motility. Here, we put these findings in the context of some of what is known about peptidoglycan and cell shape and suggest that the role of this endopeptidase in forming coccoid morphology may be critical for pathogenesis.