Liquid-crystal and bacterial living materials self-organize and move in their own way

May 11, 2017

Smart glass, transitional lenses and mood rings are not the only things made of liquid crystals; mucus, slug slime and cell membranes also contain them. Now, a team of researchers is trying to better understand how liquid crystals, combined with bacteria, form living materials and how the two interact to organize and move.

"One of the ideas we came up with was materials that live," said Igor S. Aronson, holder of the Huck Chair and Professor of Biomedical Engineering, Chemistry and Mathematics. Living matter, active matter may be self-healing and shape-changing and will convert energy to mechanical motion."

The living material Aronson is exploring using predictive computational models and experiments is composed of a bacterium—Bacillus subtilis—that can move quickly using its long flagella and a nematic —disodium cromoglycate. Liquid crystals as materials sit somewhere between a liquid and a solid. In this case, the molecules in disodium cromoglycate line up in long parallel rows, but are not fixed in place. Capable of moving, they remain oriented in only one direction unless disturbed.

According to Aronson, this type of liquid crystal closely resembles a straight-plowed field with the ridges the molecules and the furrows the areas in between.

Previously the researchers found that these tiny in a liquid crystal material can push cargo—tiny particles—through the channels in a liquid crystal and move at four times their body length when in small concentrations, but conservatively, at 20 times their body length when in large numbers.

The video will load shortly.
Computer generated model on the top left shows the pattern created by the interaction of bacteria and a nematic liquid crystal. Areas form that concentrate bacteria while others funnel bacteria away creating an absence of bacteria. The image on the right shows the concentration difference of bacteria as the liquid crystal patterns change. Bottom left image shows the changing velocity of the bacteria and the bottom right image shows the changes in concentration of the bacteria. The more bacteria in an area, the faster they move. Credit: Aronson's Lab, Penn State

"An emergent property of the combination of a liquid crystal and bacteria is that at about a 0.1 percent-by-volume bacterial concentration we start to see a collective response from the bacteria," said Aronson.

This type of living material is not simply a combination of two components, but the two parts create something with unusual optical, physical or electrical properties. However, there is no direct connection between the bacteria and the liquid. The researchers' computer models showed collective behavior in their system similar to that seen in actual liquid crystal/bacteria combinations.

The predictive computational models for this liquid-crystal bacteria system show a change from straight parallel channels when only a small bacteria population exists, to a more complex, organized, active configuration when bacteria populations are higher. While the patterns are always changing, they tend to form pointer defects—arrow shapes—that serve as traps and concentrate bacteria in an area, and triangle defects that direct bacteria away from the area. Increased bacterial concentration increases the velocity of the bacteria and configurations in areas with higher bacteria population change more rapidly than in areas with fewer bacteria. Aronson and his team looked at actual liquid-crystal living in a slightly different way than in the past. They wanted the liquid-crystal thin film to be independent, not touching any surface, so they used a device that created the film—in a way similar to that used to create large soap bubbles—and suspended it away from surface contact. This approach showed patterns of defects in the material's structure.

Experiments with thin films of liquid crystals and bacteria produced the same results as the computational models, according to the researchers.

The video will load shortly.
Bacteria on the left in illuminated circle moves through channel towards particle. When it reaches the particle, it increases speed and moves the particle away. Credit: Aronson's Lab, Penn State

Another effect the researchers found was that when oxygen was removed from the system, the action of the living material stopped. Bacillus subtilis is usually found in places with oxygen, but can survive in environments devoid of oxygen. The bacteria in the living material did not die, they simply stopped moving until oxygen was once again present.

The researchers reported in Physical Review X that their "findings suggest novel approaches for trapping and transport of bacteria and synthetic swimmers in anisotropic liquids and extend a scope of tools to control and manipulate microscopic objects in active matter." Because some biological substances like mucus and cell membranes are sometimes liquid crystals, this research may produce knowledge of how these biological substances interact with bacteria and might provide insight on diseases due to bacterial penetration in mucus.

Explore further: Scientists combine bacteria with liquid crystals

Related Stories

Scientists combine bacteria with liquid crystals

March 6, 2014

(Phys.org) —When swimming around, bacteria aren't good with the "pool rules."  In small quantities, they'll follow the lanes, but put enough together and they'll begin to create their own flow.

Research reveals inner workings of liquid crystals

March 20, 2017

Liquid crystals are used in everything from tiny digital watches to huge television screens, from optical devices to biomedical detectors. Yet little is known of their precise molecular structure when portions of such crystals ...

Controlling defects in engineered liquid crystals

March 31, 2015

Sitting with a joystick in the comfort of their chairs, scientists can play "rodeo" on a screen magnifying what is happening under their microscope. They rely on optical tweezers to manipulate an intangible ring created out ...

Recommended for you

Two teams independently test Tomonaga–Luttinger theory

October 20, 2017

(Phys.org)—Two teams of researchers working independently of one another have found ways to test aspects of the Tomonaga–Luttinger theory that describes interacting quantum particles in 1-D ensembles in a Tomonaga–Luttinger ...

Using optical chaos to control the momentum of light

October 19, 2017

Integrated photonic circuits, which rely on light rather than electrons to move information, promise to revolutionize communications, sensing and data processing. But controlling and moving light poses serious challenges. ...

Black butterfly wings offer a model for better solar cells

October 19, 2017

(Phys.org)—A team of researchers with California Institute of Technology and the Karlsruh Institute of Technology has improved the efficiency of thin film solar cells by mimicking the architecture of rose butterfly wings. ...

Terahertz spectroscopy goes nano

October 19, 2017

Brown University researchers have demonstrated a way to bring a powerful form of spectroscopy—a technique used to study a wide variety of materials—into the nano-world.

0 comments

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.