While snot is unpleasant, it’s a necessary evil, trapping dust and bacteria before they enter our bodies. Some bacteria, though, are able to swim through mucus even more effectively than water. Now, researchers think they’ve learned how the specialized flagella these bacteria propel themselves with allow them to move through thick gels with ease.
According to new research published this month in the journal Physical Review Letters, the ability of some microorganisms and cell types to move through gel-like materials is governed by the angle and shape of their flagella, a tail-like structure used for locomotion in everything from sperm cells to some microscopic worms. Researchers at Brown University found that helically shaped flagella that rotate allow microorganisms to travel more effectively through gel-like, or viscoelastic, materials, which for humans would be like swimming through tar.
Rotating helical flagella, which resemble spirals, allowed creatures to move through these substances more easily than they did even through water, where simple flagella that whip back and forth provided more effective means of locomotion. Essentially, they are less swimming and more spinning through the thicker medium.
These new insights on how bacteria move could have implications for medical technology, in everything from curing disease to possibly improving the movement of lazy sperm by providing new technologies or methods that could speed up or slow down the rate at which microorganisms travel. The information is also important for scientists around the world looking to create synthetic organisms that mimic natural microorganisms, allowing them to more efficiently tailor the parts they use to the job they want their home-brewed critters to do. The research also offers some new insights in the incredibly complicated field of fluid dynamics, which Einstein reportedly once told his son not to enter because the underlying physics was too hopelessly complex.
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