Team Biology at Examples.com
Created by: Team Biology at Examples.com, Last Updated: July 5, 2024


Flagella are slender, thread-like structures that extend from the cell body of various organisms, including bacteria, archaea, and eukaryotes. These structures play a crucial role in locomotion, allowing cells to move through liquid environments effectively. Structurally, flagella are composed of a protein called flagellin in bacteria and a complex arrangement of microtubules in eukaryotic cells, wrapped in an extension of the cell membrane. The movement of flagella, often described as a whip-like motion, propels the cell forward, navigating and responding to environmental signals. This mobility is essential for processes such as feeding, reproduction, and survival, making flagella a critical component of cellular function and adaptation.

What is Flagella?

Flagella are slender, thread-like structures that primarily function as the locomotive apparatus for various cells and microorganisms. They are made from a protein called flagellin and extend outward from the cellular body. The presence of flagella is critical in many biological contexts as it enables cells to move through liquid environments. This mobility is essential for the survival and functioning of these organisms, including bacteria, archaea, and certain eukaryotic cells.

Types of Flagella

Here is a detailed comparison of the three primary types of flagella—bacterial, archaeal, and eukaryotic—in a table format:

FeatureBacterial FlagellaArchaeal Flagella (Archaella)Eukaryotic Flagella
CompositionComposed of the protein flagellin.Made from proteins that are not homologous to flagellin.Comprised of a complex of microtubules called the axoneme.
StructureConsists of a basal body, a hook, and a filament.Simpler, smaller structure similar to type IV pili.Includes a basal body, axoneme, and is surrounded by plasma membrane.
Movement MechanismRotates like a propeller.Rotates, generally more energy-efficient than bacterial flagella.Moves in a whip-like or wave-like fashion rather than rotating.
Main FunctionsFacilitates chemotaxis, moving towards nutrients and away from toxins.Similar motility function but adapted to extreme environments.Locomotion, fluid movement, sensory functions, and signal transduction.
Typical LengthSeveral micrometers long.Typically shorter than bacterial flagella.Can be up to 200 micrometers in length in some eukaryotes.
Energy UseUses the proton motive force for energy.Uses ATP for energy, which is different from bacterial flagella.Utilizes ATP for movement.
Found InBacteriaArchaeaA wide range of eukaryotes, including animals and protozoa.

Structure of Flagella

Structure of Flagella

Bacterial Flagella

In bacteria, the flagellum has a relatively simple and well-defined structure, consisting of three main parts:

  • Basal Body: Anchored in the cell’s plasma membrane and cell wall, the basal body serves as the motor for the flagellum. It contains a rotor and a stator that utilize the proton motive force to rotate the flagellum like a propeller.
  • Hook: A curved structure that connects the basal body to the filament, allowing the filament to rotate freely and providing flexibility.
  • Filament: The longest portion of the flagella, the filament is made of many copies of a protein called flagellin. It acts as the propeller, pushing or pulling the bacterium through the fluid when it rotates.

Archaeal Flagella

Archaeal flagella, also known as archaella, share some superficial similarity with their bacterial counterparts but differ significantly in composition and mechanism:

  • Basal Body: Similar to bacteria, it functions as the motor but is structurally different, utilizing ATP for energy rather than a proton motive force.
  • Filament: Composed of glycoproteins rather than flagellin, archaeal filaments are thinner and typically less rigid than those in bacteria, suited to different environmental conditions.

Eukaryotic Flagella

Eukaryotic flagella (often called cilia when short and numerous) are more complex than those in prokaryotes and have a distinct internal structure known as the axoneme:

  • Axoneme: This core structure contains nine pairs of microtubules arranged in a circle around two central microtubules, described as a “9+2” structure. This arrangement is connected by various proteins that facilitate the bending movements of the flagella.
  • Motor Proteins: Dynein arms attached to the microtubules use ATP to cause the microtubules to slide against each other, creating a wave-like motion that propels the cell.

Functions of Flagella

1. Locomotion

The most recognized function of flagella is to facilitate movement. Flagella act like propellers, enabling cells to move through liquid environments. This mobility is crucial for various biological processes, including:

  • Seeking Nutrients and Optimal Growth Conditions: Organisms use flagella to move towards favorable environmental conditions and nutrient sources, a process known as chemotaxis.
  • Escape from Harmful Situations: Flagella help organisms move away from toxic chemicals or unfavorable conditions, enhancing survival through negative chemotaxis.

2. Sensory Functions

Flagella are not only motor structures but also serve as sensory organelles. They contain receptors that detect changes in the chemical composition and temperature of their environment. This sensory capability allows flagella-bearing cells to:

  • Respond to Environmental Cues: By detecting chemical gradients, flagella can steer cells in the right direction, towards food sources or away from dangers.
  • Initiate Cellular Responses: The detection of environmental stimuli can trigger signaling pathways within the cell, leading to various physiological responses.

3. Attachment and Colonization

In some bacteria, flagella also play a role in adherence to surfaces and the formation of biofilms. This function is particularly significant in the context of pathogenic bacteria, where flagella:

  • Facilitate Adhesion to Host Tissues: This can be crucial for the establishment of infections.
  • Enable Formation of Complex Communities: Biofilms are complex communities of microorganisms that are highly resistant to antibiotics and the immune responses of the host.

4. Reproduction

In certain eukaryotic cells, flagella are involved in the reproductive process. They assist in the movement of gametes, thereby facilitating fertilization. For instance:

  • Sperm Motility: In many species, sperm cells use flagella to swim towards the egg, playing a critical role in the fertilization process.

Formation of Flagella

Stages of Flagella Formation

1. Initiation of Basal Body Formation: The formation of flagella begins with the basal body. In bacteria like Escherichia coli, this process starts with the assembly of the MS ring in the cytoplasmic membrane, followed by the addition of several other rings (C, P, and L rings) that are crucial for the stability and rotation of the flagellum.

2. Hook and Filament Assembly: Once the basal body is in place, the next step is the construction of the hook. Proteins required for the hook are transported through the hollow core of the basal body and assemble at its tip. After the hook reaches a certain length, a switch in protein export occurs, leading to the assembly of the filament. The filament proteins, primarily flagellin, are similarly transported through the core and begin to polymerize at the tip of the growing flagellum.

3. Completion and Functionality: The final stage involves the completion of the filament and the incorporation of the cap protein at the tip, which is essential for guiding the continued addition of flagellin units. Once fully assembled, the basal body operates as a rotary engine, powered by the proton motive force (or, in some bacteria, the sodium motive force), enabling the flagellum to spin and propel the bacterium through its environment.

Flagellum vs Flagella


A flagellum is a slender, thread-like structure that extends from the cell body of certain organisms, including bacteria, protozoa, and some animal cells. Its primary function is to aid in locomotion, allowing the cell to move through liquid environments. The structure is powered by a motor protein at the base, which rotates the flagellum like a propeller.


Flagella is simply the plural form of flagellum, referring to instances where a cell possesses more than one flagellum. For example, some bacteria species are equipped with multiple flagella that enhance their mobility and enable more complex movements such as tumbling and swarming.

Key Differences

  • Single vs. Multiple: Use flagellum when referring to a single structure and flagella when discussing multiple structures.
  • Functional Impact: Cells with multiple flagella might exhibit different behaviors or enhanced motility compared to those with a single flagellum.

Flagella in the Human Body

In humans, flagella are specialized structures that are not as widespread as in many microorganisms. The primary example of flagella in the human body is the sperm cell. Here, the flagellum plays a critical role in the reproductive process.

Structure of Sperm Flagellum

The sperm flagellum is similar in structure to eukaryotic flagella found in other organisms but is uniquely adapted to its function of propulsion to reach and fertilize the egg. The flagellum extends from the sperm cell’s body and is divided into several parts:

  • Neck: Connects the head of the sperm to the flagellum.
  • Midpiece: Contains mitochondria that provide the energy required for movement.
  • Principal Piece: The longest part of the flagellum, covered by a fibrous sheath.
  • End Piece: The final segment of the flagellum, which is very thin.

Significance of Flagella

Flagella play vital roles across different domains of life:

  • Bacteria: In bacteria, flagella are crucial for motility, allowing cells to move toward nutrients or away from harmful substances. They are also important in the formation of biofilms and for virulence in pathogenic bacteria.
  • Archaea: Similar to bacteria, but their flagella (archaella) differ slightly in structure and are composed of different proteins.
  • Eukaryotes: In eukaryotic cells, such as protozoa and certain algae, flagella are structurally more complex than those found in prokaryotes and are covered by an extension of the cell membrane. They often function in feeding and reproduction, in addition to locomotion.

Flagella-Related Diseases

Flagella-related diseases in humans primarily involve the malfunction of sperm flagella, as it is the main flagellated structure in the human body. Abnormalities in the structure, function, or development of sperm flagella can lead to various reproductive issues, primarily affecting male fertility. Here are some key disorders associated with flagellar dysfunction

Primary Ciliary Dyskinesia (PCD)

While technically related to cilia, which are structurally and functionally similar to flagella, Primary Ciliary Dyskinesia (PCD) is often discussed in the context of flagellar diseases due to the shared underlying mechanisms of motility. PCD is a genetic disorder that affects the cilia lining the respiratory tract, ears, sinuses, and reproductive organs. In the lungs, defective ciliary function leads to poor mucus clearance, resulting in chronic respiratory infections, bronchiectasis, and sinusitis.

Kartagener Syndrome

A subset of PCD, Kartagener Syndrome is characterized by the triad of situs inversus, chronic sinusitis, and bronchiectasis. In addition to these, males with Kartagener Syndrome often experience infertility due to immotile sperm, as the same genetic defect that affects respiratory cilia also impacts the flagella of sperm cells.


Asthenozoospermia is a condition where sperm motility is impaired, which can be due to defects in the sperm flagellum. This can involve abnormalities in the number, structure, or function of the flagella, preventing effective sperm movement. It is a common cause of male infertility and can result from genetic defects, lifestyle factors, or infections.


Although primarily a condition marked by abnormal sperm morphology, Teratozoospermia can include defects in the flagellar structure. Abnormal flagellar formation can impair the sperm’s ability to swim, which is critical for reaching and fertilizing the egg.


What is Flagella and Its Function?

Flagella are whip-like structures enabling cells to move efficiently in liquid environments, crucial for navigation and survival.

What is a Flagellum?

A flagellum is a microscopic, thread-like appendage that facilitates locomotion in many microscopic organisms, including bacteria and protozoa.

Which Bacteria Uses Flagella?

Many bacteria, like E. coli and Salmonella, utilize flagella for motility, aiding in nutrient location and host invasion.

Where is Flagella Found?

Flagella are found in various organisms, including bacteria, archaea, and eukaryotic cells like algae and protozoans.

What is the Only Human Cell That Has Flagella?

The only human cell with a flagellum is the sperm cell, which uses it to swim towards the egg for fertilization.

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