Cilia and Flagella

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A comparison of the beating of flagella and motile cilia.
Source: Urry, Lisa A.. Campbell Biology (p. 115). Pearson Education. Kindle Edition.

Campbell Biology

In eukaryotes, a specialized arrangement of microtubules is responsible for the beating of flagella (singular, flagellum) and cilia (singular, cilium), microtubule-containing extensions that project from some cells. Many unicellular eukaryotes are propelled through water by cilia or flagella that act as locomotor appendages, and the sperm of animals, algae, and some plants have flagella. When cilia or flagella extend from cells that are held in place as part of a tissue layer, they can move fluid over the surface of the tissue. For example, the ciliated lining of the trachea (windpipe) sweeps mucus containing trapped debris out of the lungs. In a woman’s reproductive tract, the cilia lining the oviducts help move an egg toward the uterus.

Motile cilia usually occur in large numbers on the cell surface. Flagella are usually limited to just one or a few per cell, and they are longer than cilia. Flagella and cilia differ in their beating patterns. A flagellum has an undulating motion like the tail of a fish. In contrast, cilia have alternating power and recovery strokes, much like the oars of a racing crew boat.

A cilium may also act as a signal-receiving “antenna” for the cell. Cilia that have this function are generally non-motile, and there is only one per cell. (In fact, in vertebrate animals, it appears that almost all cells have such a cilium, which is called a primary cilium.) Membrane proteins on this kind of cilium transmit molecular signals from the cell’s environment to its interior, triggering signaling pathways that may lead to changes in the cell’s activities. Cilium-based signaling appears to be crucial to brain function and to embryonic development.

Though different in length, number per cell, and beating pattern, motile cilia and flagella share a common structure. Each motile cilium or flagellum has a group of microtubules sheathed in an extension of the plasma membrane. Nine doublets of microtubules are arranged in a ring with two single microtubules in its center. This arrangement, referred to as the “9 + 2” pattern, is found in nearly all eukaryotic flagella and motile cilia. (Nonmotile primary cilia have a “9 + 0” pattern, lacking the central pair of microtubules.) The microtubule assembly of a cilium or flagellum is anchored in the cell by a basal body, which is structurally very similar to a centriole, with microtubule triplets in a “9 + 0” pattern. In fact, in many animals (including humans), the basal body of the fertilizing sperm’s flagellum enters the egg and becomes a centriole.

How does the microtubule assembly produce the bending movements of flagella and motile cilia? Bending involves large motor proteins called dyneins that are attached along each outer microtubule doublet. A typical dynein protein has two “feet” that “walk” along the microtubule of the adjacent doublet, using ATP for energy. One foot maintains contact, along the microtubule. The outer doublets and two central microtubules are held together by flexible cross-linking proteins, and the walking movement is coordinated so that it happens on one side of the circle at a time. If the doublets were not held in place, the walking action would make them slide past each other. Instead, the movements of the dynein feet cause the microtubules—and the organelle as a whole—to bend.


Urry, Lisa A.. Campbell Biology. Pearson Education. Kindle Edition.


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