Researchers explain the flagellar synchronisation of swimming algae

October 25, 2013
Green algae move to the beat
The green alga is a microscopic breaststroke swimmer. The movements of its two flagella are synchronised by mechanical forces: its swimming strokes slow down or accelerate, depending on how the cell rocks while swimming. Credit: MPI-CBG, Dresden

The beating of flagella is one of the basic principles of movement in the cellular cosmos. However, up to now, scientists were unsure as to how the movements of several of these small cellular appendages are synchronised. Dresden-based researchers from the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics and the MPI for the Physics of Complex Systems have now succeeded in demonstrating how the green alga Chlamydomonas synchronises the movements of its two flagella using a resourceful rocking movement. To do this, the researchers started by developing a theoretical model which they were then able to substantiate in experiments with the microscopic breaststroke swimmers: when the two flagella lose their rhythm, the cell begins to rock. This causes the swimming movements to slow down or accelerate. The resulting synchronisation mechanism is based solely on the coupling of the two movements of the body and the flagella; no special sensors or chemical signals are needed.

"An alga is a wonderful model for investigating our research question because, with its two , it shows us very clearly how several of these appendage-like structures are synchronised using alone," says Benjamin Friedrich from the Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems who headed the studies. How tens of thousands of molecular engines work together to set flagella in motion and synchronise them is a matter of great interest, as this mechanism underlies numerous processes: "The tiny cellular appendages are one of nature's greatest hits: they drive sperm and form big conveyor belts in the fallopian tubes and airways," explains Friedrich.

The cellular extensions, which are a mere ten micrometres long, beat around 30 times per second. In a flat observation chamber, the researchers allowed the single-celled green algae Chlamydomonas to swim around under their microscope lenses and then evaluated the swimming and bending movements on the microscope films: "From these films, we are able to reconstruct all of the mechanical forces at work in detail," says Friedrich. When the load increases, the flagellum beats more slowly – just like a car engine that has to negotiate an incline. The strength and speed of the beat are linked to the movement of the body. This load dependency synchronises the beats of the two flagella and thus eliminates the need for special sensors or .

Explore further: Synchronized swimming of algae

More information: Veikko F. Geyer, Frank Jülicher, Jonathon Howard, Benjamin M. Friedrich, Cell-body rocking is a dominant mechanism for flagellar synchronization in a swimming alga, PNAS, 21 October 2013

Related Stories

Synchronized swimming of algae

July 23, 2009

Using high-speed cinematography, scientists at Cambridge University have discovered that individual algal cells can regulate the beating of their flagella in and out of synchrony in a manner that controls their swimming trajectories. ...

Microswimmers hit the wall (w/ video)

January 8, 2013

(—New research reveals what happens when swimming cells such as spermatozoa and algae hit a solid wall, and has implications for applications in diagnostics and biofuel production.

The ins and outs of building the sperm tail

August 13, 2012

Sperm swim, lung cells sweep mucus away, and the cells in the female Fallopian tube move eggs from the ovary to the uterus. Underlying these phenomena are flagella – slender, hair-like structures extending from the surface ...

Recommended for you

These shrews have heads that shrink with the season

October 23, 2017

If any part of the body would seem ill equipped to shrink, it would probably be the head and skull. And, yet, researchers reporting in Current Biology on October 23 have found that the skulls of red-toothed shrews do shrink ...

Single-molecule dissection of developmental gene control

October 23, 2017

Scientists at EPFL and Max Plank have made significant discoveries on how developmental genes are controlled by the methyltransferase enzyme PRC2. The study is published in Nature Structural & Molecular Biology.


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (9) Oct 25, 2013
This is yet another example of Art Winfree's law of coupled oscillators, developed circa 1967. See Coupled Oscillators and Biological Synchronization, Strogatz and Stewart, Scientific American Dec. 1993, describing Winfree's law.
5 / 5 (1) Oct 26, 2013
@Franklin: Why don't you read the work? Macksb gives the underlying physics of it, it is quite simple.

No need for alternate hypotheses (and never a need for unsubstantiated claims) if the original work works.
1 / 5 (3) Oct 27, 2013
Thanks for drawing attention to my comment, Franklins. Have you ever spoken with a man whose parachute did not open? I didn't think so.

To put it another way, permit me to express the idea in your own words as they appear in your penultimate sentence, after applying Occam's Razor to shorten it a bit:

"And if they wouldn't form synchronized oscillators, they wouldn't be."

Darwinian twaddle, one might say.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.