Flagellar type III protein export is highly organized and well controlled in a timely manner by dynamic, specific and cooperative interactions among components of the export apparatus, allowing the huge and complex macromolecular assembly to be built efficiently.
The bacterial flagellum, which is required for motility, consists of a rotary motor, a universal joint and a helical propeller. Most of the flagellar components are translocated to the distal, growing end of the flagellum for assembly through the central channel of the flagellum itself by the flagellar type III protein export apparatus, which is postulated to be located on the cytoplasmic side of the flagellar basal body. The export specificity switching machinery, which consists of at least two proteins that function as a molecular ruler and an export switch, respectively, monitors the state of hook–basal body assembly in the cell exterior and switches export specificity, thereby coupling sequential flagellar gene expression with the flagellar assembly process. The export ATPase complex composed of an ATPase and its regulator acts as a pilot to deliver its export substrate to the export gate and helps initial entry of the substrate N-terminal chain into a narrow pore of the export gate. The energy of ATP hydrolysis appears to be used to disassemble and release the ATPase complex from the protein about to be exported, and the rest of the successive unfolding/translocation process of the long polypeptide chain is driven solely by proton motive force (PMF), perhaps through biased one-dimensional Brownian diffusion. Interestingly, the subunits of the ATPase complex have significant sequence similarities to subunits of F0F1-ATP synthase, a rotary motor that drives the chemical reaction of ATP synthesis using PMF, and the entire crystal structure of the export ATPase is extremely similar to the α/β subunits of F0F1-ATP synthase, suggesting that the flagellar export apparatus and F0F1-ATP synthase share the mechanism for their two distinct functions.