Flocking rods in a sea of beads: swarms through physical interactions

Many living creatures, such as birds, sheep, and fish, make coherent flocks or swarms. Flocking animals travel together, coordinating their speed and turns in an often visually striking manner. This can have benefits for the animals – flocking birds can use aerodynamics to fly more efficiently, sheep can move together as a group to evade predators, and fish can use collective sensing to find preferred locations in their environment. Flocks emerge in biological systems because animals try to follow their neighbors. But how about non-living things? Can they spontaneously form swarms without any biological motive?

Not Just Spinning Their Gears: Extracting Useful Work from Bacterial Swarms

Imagine you and your friends are trapped by a super-villain in a cage. There is a giant gear with a diameter half the length of a football field in the center. The only way to open the cage door, get out, and stop the villain’s evil plans will be to rotate this gear by one full revolution. This is a daunting task for one person -- but if you have enough friends, you can grab the gear’s teeth and push it together to escape. An analogous task is faced by flocks of tiny bacteria in today’s two featured papers. In “Bacterial ratchet motors”, Di Leonardo and colleagues discuss the mechanics of bacteria pushing a single gear, and in “Swimming bacteria power microscopic gears”, Sokolov and colleagues discuss how bacteria can interact to power more than one gear.

Mob mentality improves animal sensing

Imagine you forget to bring money for lunch, and you overhear a teacher mention that there is free pizza somewhere on the third floor of your school. If you’re alone, you might walk around the third floor, trying to detect signs of pizza  - does a room smell delicious? Do you see a suspicious stack of pizza boxes by the door to the gym? Just by using your senses, you can find the pizza. However, it is likely that there are other students on the third floor who also want free food. Maybe if you follow a crowd of students all walking in the same direction and talking about whether they want a Hawaiian or pepperoni slice, they might lead you directly to the pizza! Which of these methods will be more effective? Following environmental signals, such as the smell of cheese, or social signals, such as the people all heading in the direction of potential pizza? In “Emergent Sensing of Complex Environments by Mobile Animal Groups,” Andrew Berdahl and colleagues seek to find out how searching in groups enhances the sensing ability of animals.

How swimming bacteria spin fluid

In today’s study, Dunkel and his colleagues investigate how bacteria can make flow patterns that look turbulent -  chaotic and full of vortices - even though bacteria are tiny and slow.  The bacteria push the fluid around as they swim and create vortices, spinning regions in the fluid. The 5 μm long bacteria create vortices with diameters of 80 μm by swimming at the speed of 30 μm/s!