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Spirochetes have a unique cell structure: These bacteria have internal periplasmic flagella subterminally attached at each cell end. How spirochetes coordinate the rotation of the periplasmic flagella for chemotaxis is poorly understood. In other bacteria, modulation of flagellar rotation is essential for chemotaxis, and phosphorylation-dephosphorylation of the response regulator CheY plays a key role in regulating this rotary motion. The genome of the
Lyme disease spirochete Borrelia burgdorferi contains multiple homologues of chemotaxis genes, including three copies of cheY, referred to as cheY1, cheY2, and cheY3. To investigate the function of these genes, we targeted them separately or in combination by allelic exchange mutagenesis. Whereas wild-type cells ran, paused (flexed), and reversed, cells of all single, double, and triple mutants that contained an inactivated cheY3 gene constantly ran. Capillary tube chemotaxis assays indicated that only those strains with a mutation in cheY3 were deficient in chemotaxis, and cheY3 complementation restored chemotactic ability. In vitro phosphorylation assays indicated that CheY3 was more efficiently phosphorylated by CheA2 than by CheA1, and the CheY3-P intermediate generated was considerably more stable than the CheY-P proteins found in most other bacteria. The results point toward CheY3 being the key response regulator essential for chemotaxis in B. burgdorferi. In addition, the stability of CheY3-P may be critical for coordination of the rotation of the periplasmic flagella.