When an experiment doesn’t behave the way we expect, either our understanding of the relevant physics is flawed, or the phenomenon is more complicated than it appears. When a theoretical prediction is off by two orders of magnitude – like what was observed in this recent paper by Hua Yung Lo, Yuan Liu, and Lei Xu of the Chinese University of Hong Kong – something is seriously wrong.
Scientists often draw inspiration from biological organisms to describe phenomena, even when they are studying outside the realm of biology. Physicist Pierre-Gilles de Gennes was no exception. In 1971, after being inspired by the movement of snakes, he proposed reptation theory, or the reptation model, which has since been widely used to describe motions of polymers. As the name “reptation” suggests, de Gennes assumed polymer chains move like snakes. As shown in Figure 1, the model describes a polymer chain’s motion in an environment that is highly populated by other chains (shown in gray) by assuming that the chain is confined in a virtual tube (shown in red) formed by surrounding polymer chains. According to reptation theory, the chain wiggles through this tube, similar to a snake slithering through the woods. As one might imagine, directly imaging the snake-like slithering of polymers is a challenging affair; however, in today’s study, Maram Abadi and coworkers from King Abdullah University of Science and Technology were able to do just that with DNA chains – an example of a polymer – and compared their results to prevailing theory.
If you ever played tug-of-war in elementary school, you might remember that it isn’t the friendliest game. People fall over, hands get burned from holding on to the rope, and knees get scraped from falling on the ground. Although victory can be sweet, the injuries that come with it may make you never want to play the game again. Perhaps surprisingly, there is a similar ‘’tug-of-war” happening inside your body, as individual cells move around from one place to another in a process called cell migration. What’s more, this microscopic tug-of-war may help to heal those scrapes and bruises that happened in elementary school, and those that happen in your everyday life.