γ-proteobacteria eject their polar flagella under nutrient depletion, retaining flagellar motor relic structures

Bacteria switch only intermittently to motile planktonic lifestyles under favorable conditions. Under chronic nutrient deprivation, however, bacteria orchestrate a switch to stationary phase, conserving energy by altering metabolism and stopping motility. About two-thirds of bacteria use flagella to swim, but how bacteria deactivate this large molecular machine remains unclear. Here, we describe the previously unreported ejection of polar motors by γ-proteobacteria. We show that these bacteria eject their flagella at the base of the flagellar hook when nutrients are depleted, leaving a relic of a former flagellar motor in the outer membrane. Subtomogram averages of the full motor and relic reveal that this is an active process, as a plug protein appears in the relic, likely to prevent leakage across their outer membrane; furthermore, we show that ejection is triggered only under nutritional depletion and is independent of the filament as a possible mechanosensor. We show that filament ejection is a widespread phenomenon demonstrated by the appearance of relic structures in diverse γ-proteobacteria including Plesiomonas shigelloides, Vibrio cholerae, Vibrio fischeri, Shewanella putrefaciens, and Pseudomonas aeruginosa. While the molecular details remain to be determined, our results demonstrate a novel mechanism for bacteria to halt costly motility when nutrients become scarce.