Eukaryotic cytoskeleton consists of three main types of filaments: actin microfilaments, microtubules and intermediate filaments (IFs). Actin and tubulin-like proteins are also found in bacteria where they perform diverse cytoskeletal functions. IFs, however, are considered to be a characteristic constituent of metazoan cells only, where they (among other functions) are involved in determination and maintenance of cell shape and cellular integrity. Surprisingly, a coiled coil-rich protein called crescentin was recently shown to play a key role in determining the complex curved and helical cell shapes of the bacterium Caulobacter crescentus, and to exhibit several characteristic properties of animal IF proteins. First, the arrangement of the coiled coil domains of crescentin closely resembles the tripartite molecular architecture of IF proteins. Second, crescentin also possesses the defining biochemical property of IF proteins to assemble into 10-nm-wide filaments in vitro without cofactors. Furthermore, crescentin forms a higher-order helical structure in vivo, which is localized asymmetrically along the concave side of the cell. In close association with the cell membrane, the crescentin structure promotes the helical growth of the cell and thereby determines a curved or a helical shape, depending on the length of the cell. The unexpected finding of an IF-like element in a bacterium raises several interesting questions concerning, for example, the molecular mechanisms whereby complex and asymmetric cell shapes are generated by different bacteria, or the functional and evolutionary relatedness of crescentin to animal IF proteins.
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