Meet Trichoplax adhaerens, a microscopic marine animal from one of the oldest known branches of the evolutionary tree. It looks like a microscopic cell sandwich: two layers of epithelial cells (which make up the surfaces of our organs), with a layer of fibre cells in between.
If you speak to a soft matter physicist these days, within a few minutes the term “active matter” is bound to come up. A material is considered “active” when it burns energy to produce work, just like all sorts of molecular motors, proteins, and enzymes do inside your body. In this study, the scientists are focusing specifically on active polymers. These are long molecules which can burn energy to do physical work. Much of biological active matter is in the form of polymers (DNA or actin-myosin systems for example), and understanding them better would give direct insight into biophysics of all kinds. But polymers are microscopic objects with complex interactions, making them difficult to manipulate directly. To make matters worse, physicists have yet to fundamentally understand the behaviors of active materials, since they do not fit into our existing theories of so-called “passive” systems. In this study, Deblais and colleagues decided to entirely circumvent this problem by working with a much larger and easier-to-study system that behaves similarly to a polymer solution: a mixture of squirming worms in water.
Standing in the center of a crowded bus on your way to class, you might think: “why don’t these people just move? It’s hot and I can’t breathe!” Male penguins huddling to keep their eggs warm in the Antarctic winter have the opposite problem – no penguin wants to be at the cold edge of the huddle. A penguin in the huddle wants to stay in the warm center, since the outside temperature can reach -45 oC. However, penguins on the edge of the huddle are trying to push through the crowd to reach the center. Through the independent motion of each penguin, the huddle stays tight enough for the center to remain warm but loose enough to keep moving.
Imagine yourself as a small fly called a midge (shown in Figure 1a). You used to live in a lake as a small larva with no concerns in life except swimming, eating, and growing. One day, you hid underwater and formed a cocoon around your body as it developed wings, legs, and antennae. A few days later, you swam to the surface and burst out of your cocoon as an adult fly — a male. As a new adult male, you find the clock ticking – you have only a few days to find a mate before you die.
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.
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.