How tiny moving parts in cells can teach us big lessons

Three noticeable out-of-plane microtubule bundles are misaligned with the rest of the microtubules at the bottom left of the image. Credit: Georgia Institute of Technology

When we think of matter, we usually think of solid objects or liquids.

But there’s another kind of matter that’s all about movement: it’s called ‘active matter.’ Imagine a school of fish swimming together or tiny bacteria moving in a dish.

Roman Grigoriev, a physics professor at Georgia Tech, is particularly interested in the teeny-tiny parts of active matter that work at the level of molecules.

Why does this matter?

Well, these tiny moving parts could help us create new materials, understand how living things behave, and even lead to robotic systems that can move on their own.

But to do all that, scientists need to figure out how these microscopic parts interact with each other and how they work as a group.

Grigoriev and his team recently took a big step toward answering these questions. They published a study in Science Advances where they looked at one common example of active matter: particles that move by themselves in a liquid.

These particles, which could be bacteria or man-made ‘microswimmers,’ form groups and patterns because they can move and interact with each other.

In this study, the researchers used microtubules, which are tiny rods inside cells that help give the cells their shape. These microtubules move because of a protein called kinesin, which uses energy to slide them around. By putting the microtubules between layers of oil and water, the researchers could watch their movements in a simplified, two-dimensional space.

Here’s where it gets cool: the researchers found out that many things we believed about how these microtubules move might be wrong. They used a new approach to figure out that different forces and activities control the movement of microtubules than previously thought.

This discovery could explain some scientific puzzles, like how certain patterns and activities in active matter are influenced by different factors, such as the concentration of kinesin and the thickness of the fluid layers.

Grigoriev said their findings are a wake-up call. Sometimes, scientists get stuck in old ways of thinking, and this study shows that it’s important to be open to new perspectives. Their approach could serve as a tool for other researchers, helping them rethink what they know about active matter and maybe other fields, too.

So, this isn’t just a story about tiny moving parts. It’s about how understanding those tiny parts can lead to big changes in science and technology.

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Source: Georgia Institute of Technology.