Tag Archives: biophysics

Bacteria use slingshots to slice through slime

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgBacteria have busy social lives. You might get a glimpse of this the next time you take a shower. The slimy discolored patches that form on bath tiles and on the inside of shower curtains are the mega-cities of the bacterial world. If you zoom into these patches of grime, you’ll find bustling microcosms that are teeming with life at a different scale.

That we can see these microbial communities with our naked eye is testament to the scale of their achievement. Perhaps the most spectacular examples are the giant mats of bacteria that lend life to the Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park. These macroscopic structures are just as impressive as our cities that are visible from outer space. Microbes have colonized practically all moist surfaces on earth, from the inside of our mouths (they’re responsible for dental plaque) to hot vents at the bottom of the ocean. And it all started from small beginnings.

Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone National Park, USA. The people above give a sense of the scale. (Image credit: Leto-A)

The first wave of bacterial settlers that arrived on your shower curtain were few and far apart. They would try to hold on using the molecular adhesion between themselves and the shower curtain. Those that couldn’t get a grip were flushed down the drain plug.

Bacteria have an adaptation that serves them well in such tricky situations. It’s a sort of multi-purpose prong, technically known as a type IV pilus (plural: pili). These wonderful filament-like structures extend out from the bacteria, and grab on to the surface like a suction cup on a bathroom tile. What happens next is straight out of science fiction.

Once these settlers have their ‘feet’ firmly planted on the ground, the next step is to build a home. They begin to excrete a polymer substance, forming a grid that locks them into place. Many different microbes can co-inhabit these homes, from bacteria and archaea to protozoa, fungi and algae. Each species performs a specialized metabolic function, neatly occupying a niche in this city. Together these interlocked communities, or biofilms, are the beginnings of a thriving multicultural microbial civilization.

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What it feels like for a sperm, or how to get around when you are really, really small

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgWe don’t usually learn about the physics of squishy things. Physics textbooks are filled with solid objects such as incompressible blocks, inclined planes and inelastic strings. This is the rigid world that obeys Newton’s laws of motion. Here, squishiness is an exception and drag is routinely ignored. The only elastic object around is a spring, and it is perfectly elastic. It will never bend too far and lose its shape. But any child who has played vigorously with a Slinky has stretched past the limits of this Newtonian world.

Mr. Newton's not going to like that..

Whereas the rigid universe is notable for its strict adherence to a few basic principles, the squishy universe is a different beast altogether.

I was recently out paddling, and noticed that as you move the paddle through water, tiny whirlpools begin to develop along its sides. The whirlpools grow in size, become self-sustaining, and break off and float away. Eventually they die out, as they lose their energy to the fluid around them.

You could also watch the spirals and vortices created by rising smoke. Or notice the strange shapes made by the wind as it sweeps through the clouds. It’s as if fluids have a life of their own, often wondrous and beautiful, and other times surprising and counter-intuitive.

The brief and wondrous life of vortices

But the motion of fluids is notoriously hard to predict. It’s so difficult that if you can solve the equations of fluid flow, there are people willing to offer you a million dollars. The difficulty comes from a mathematical property of the equations known as non-linearity. Simply put, a non-linear system is one where a small change can lead to a large effect. The same thing that makes these equations difficult to solve is also what makes fluids surprising and interesting. It’s why the weather is so hard to predict – tiny changes in local temperatures and pressures can have a large effect.

At this point, most reasonable people would throw their arms up in despair. But physicists are an unreasonably persistent bunch, and when faced with an equation that they can’t solve, they try to get some insight by looking at what happens at extremes. For example, thick and syrupy fluids like glycerine behave in a surprisingly orderly fashion. Take a look at this video (watch through to the end, it’s worth it).

I bet you’ve never seen a fluid do that before. So what’s going on here? And what does this have to do with swimming sperm?

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Filed under Biology, Physics, Science