Many ways to build an actin filament


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Cells rely on extensive networks of protein fibres to help maintain their proper form and function. For species ranging from bacteria to humans, this ‘cytoskeleton’ is integrally involved in diverse processes including movement, DNA segregation, cell division and transport of molecular cargoes. The most abundant cytoskeletal filament-forming protein, F-actin, is remarkably well conserved across eukaryotic species. From yeast to human – an evolutionary distance of over one billion years – only about 10% of residues in actin have changed and the filament structure has been highly conserved. Surprisingly, recent structural data show this to be not the case for filamentous bacterial actins, which exhibit highly divergent helical symmetries in conjunction with structural plasticity or polymorphism, and dynamic properties that may make them uniquely suited for the specific cellular processes in which they participate. Bacterial actin filaments often organize themselves into complex structures within the prokaryotic cell, driven by molecular crowding and cation association, to form bundles (ParM) or interwoven sheets (MreB). The formation of supramolecular structures is essential for bacterial cytoskeleton function. We discuss the underlying physical principles that lead to complex structure formation and the implications these have on the physiological functions of cytoskeletal proteins.