Unequal division

The ZitP protein helps some bacterial cells to divide to produce two very different offspring.

Living cells become asymmetric for many different reasons and how they do so has been a long-standing question in biology. In some cells, the asymmetry arises because a given protein accumulates at one side of the cell. In particular, this process happens before some cells divide to produce two non-identical daughter cells that then go on to develop in very different ways — which is vital for the development of almost all multicellular organisms. The single-celled bacterium Caulobacter crescentus also undergoes this type of asymmetric division. The polarized Caulobacter cell produces two very different offspring — a stationary cell and a nomadic cell that swims using a propeller-like structure, called a flagellum, and has projections called pili on its surface.

Before it divides asymmetrically, the Caulobacter cell must accumulate specific proteins at its extremities, or poles. Two such proteins are ZitP and CpaM, which appear to have multiple roles and are thought to interact with other factors that regulate cell division. However, little is known about how ZitP and CpaM become organized at the poles at the right time and how they interact with these regulators of cell division.

Johann Mignolet and colleagues explored how ZitP becomes polarized in Caulobacter crescentus using a combination of approaches including biochemical and genetic analyses and very high-resolution microscopy. This revealed that ZitP accumulated via different pathways at the two poles and that it formed distinct structures at each pole. These structures were associated with different roles for ZitP. While ZitP recruited proteins, including CpaM, required for assembly of pili to one of the poles, it acted differently at the opposite pole.

By mutating regions of ZitP, Mignolet and colleagues went on to show that different regions of the protein carry out these roles. Further experiments demonstrated that regulators of the cell division cycle influenced how ZitP and CpaM accumulated and behaved in cells, ensuring that the proteins carry out their roles at the correct time during division. These findings provide more evidence that proteins can have different roles at distinct sites within a cell, in this case at opposite poles of a cell. Future studies will be needed to determine whether this is seen in cells other than Caulobacter including more complex, non-bacterial cells.

To find out more

Read the eLife research paper on which this eLife digest is based: “Functional dichotomy and distinct nanoscale assemblies of a cell cycle-controlled bipolar zinc-finger regulator” (December 23, 2016).
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