A honeybee colony can only exist when many individual bees cooperate. When a hive becomes too crowded, about 10,000 of the workers and a queen leave the hive to form their own colony. While the scout bees are searching for a new nest site, the rest of the bees are exposed to all of the dangers of the outside world, such as predators and storms, and have to stick together for protection. They form a “cluster”, which hangs on a nearby tree branch (as in Figure 1a) until a new suitable nest site is found. Sometimes, beekeepers hang these clusters from their faces as a “bee beard”.
You know how sometimes you tell to yourself things like “life is complicated”? Theoretical physicists are constantly reminded of this fact when studying living organisms. Recently, a new field of physics has emerged, inspired by the observation of living systems. What forces do cells exert during metastasis in cancer? What are the growth dynamics of biofilms of bacteria? How can a school of fish organize itself and move simultaneously? These are questions raised in the physics of active matter. Active matter is an assembly of objects able to move freely and capable of organizing into complex structures by consuming energy from their environment. Active matter can be composed of living or artificial self-propelled particles.
The shape of a container can affect the flow of the fluid inside it. Water in a narrow stream flows smoothly, but once the water molecules make their way into a pond, they spread out and no longer flow coherently. If you blow into a long, narrow straw, the air will go straight through. Once the air flows into the large room you are standing in, it slows down as it mixes with the air around it, so someone standing five feet away from you won’t feel a breeze at all.
The above examples show how the shape of a container affect the flow of passive fluids. In today’s study, Kun-Ta Wu and colleagues investigated how the motion of active fluids, fluids that flow using an internal source of energy, is also affected by the shape of their container. They used a system of microtubules, chains of proteins assembled into long, stiff rods. Clusters of a protein called kinesin exert a force on microtubules by “walking” along them. Microtubules interact with each other to form swarms or turbulent-like flows.
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?
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.
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.
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!
When we think about fluid flow, we generally think of motion in response to some external force: rivers run downhill because of gravity, while soda moves through a straw because of the pressure difference created by sucking on one end. Recently, however, scientists have become interested in a class of fluids that have the capacity to move all by themselves -- the so-called “active fluids.” In this paper, Kun-Ta Wu and his co-workers explore how such a material can turn its stored chemical energy into useful work: cargo transport.