An archaellum (plural: archaella, formerly archaeal flagellum) is a unique whip-like structure on the cell surface of many archaea. The name was proposed in 2012 following studies that showed it to be evolutionarily and structurally different from the bacterial and eukaryotic flagella. The archaellum is functionally the same – it can be rotated and is used to swim in liquid environments. The archaellum was found to be structurally similar to the type IV pilus.
In 1977, archaea were first classified as a separate group of prokaryotes in the three-domain system of Carl Woese and George E. Fox, based on the differences in the sequence of ribosomal RNA (16S rRNA) genes. This domain possesses numerous fundamental traits distinct from both the bacterial and the eukaryotic domains. Many archaea possess a rotating motility structure that at first seemed to resemble the bacterial and eukaryotic flagella. The flagellum (Latin for whip) is a lash-like appendage that protrudes from the cell. In the last two decades, it was discovered that the archaeal flagella, although functionally similar to bacterial and eukaryotic flagella, structurally resemble bacterial type IV pili. Bacterial type IV pili are surface structures that can be extended and retracted to give a twitching motility and are used to adhere to or move on solid surfaces; their "tail" proteins are called pilins. To underline these differences, Ken Jarrell and Sonja-Verena Albers proposed to change the name of the archaeal flagellum to archaellum.
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