CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (CBS19 NEWS) -- A decades-old mystery on how bacteria move has been solved by researchers at the University of Virginia School of Medicine.

By using a technology called Cryo-EM, scientists found that certain mixtures of protein can create a cork-screw-like tail. Bacteria use this tail to propel them through the environment in which they live.

"If we wanted to build devices that can move like bacteria, if we want to engineer them, we have to know how these things work. So, we can use this with what is called biomimetically, we can build devices that mimic existing biological structures," said Dr. Edward Egelman with the UVA School of Medicine.

These appendages are scientifically called flagellum if there is just one or flagella if there are multiple.

Each appendage is made up of thousands of identical subunits that form into a corkscrew-like propeller that can push a bacterium forward.

The researchers learned the protein making up the appendage can exist in 11 states, and the mixture of these states is what causes the corkscrew shape.

Egelman says this new discovery can help advance nanotechnology and biomedical engineering.

The findings have been published in the scientific journal Cell.