The bacterial flagellar motor is a highly efficient rotary machine used by many bacteria to propel themselves. It has recently been shown that at low speeds its rotation proceeds in steps. Here we propose a simple physical model, based on the storage of energy in protein springs, that accounts for this stepping behavior as a random walk in a tilted corrugated potential that combines torque and contact forces. We argue that the absolute angular position of the rotor is crucial for understanding step properties and show this hypothesis to be consistent with the available data, in particular the observation that backward steps are smaller on average than forward steps. We also predict a sublinear speed versus torque relationship for fixed load at low torque, and a peak in rotor diffusion as a function of torque. Our model provides a comprehensive framework for understanding and analyzing stepping behavior in the bacterial flagellar motor and proposes novel, testable predictions. More broadly, the storage of energy in protein springs by the flagellar motor may provide useful general insights into the design of highly efficient molecular machines.
Mora, T., Yu, H., Sowa, Y., & Wingreen, N. S. (2009). Steps in the bacterial flagellar motor. PLoS Computational Biology, 5(10). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pcbi.1000540