Microscopic artificial swimmers

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Original entry: Naveen Sinha, APPHY 226, Spring 2009

Second Entry: Xu Zhang, AP225 Fall 2009

Third Entry: Hsin-I Lu, AP225 Fall 2009

Microscopic artificial swimmers

Rémi Dreyfus, Jean Baudry, Marcus L. Roper, Marc Fermigier, Howard A. Stone & Jérôme Bibette Nature 437, 862-865 (6 October 2005). Keywords:


The authors constructed a micro-scale swimming robot based on the behavior of swimming micro-ogranisms. Bacteria tend to use helical tail-like structures known as flagella that rotate in order to move through liquids, whereas eukaryotic cells tend to use flagella that undergo an oscillatory beating motion. The authors made their device from micron-size magnetic colloidal particles that were bound together using 100nm-long segments of DNA. This artificial flagella was used to propel a red-blood cell. To power this artificial swimmer, the researchers applied two magnetic fields: a steady magnetic field to lengthen the flegella and an oscillatory transverse field to cause the beating motion. A diagram is shown below:


The crucial aspect of this technique was ensuring that the motion was cyclic, but no time-reversible. A symmetric motion would cause the device to simply oscillate back and forth due to the dominance of viscosity at such small length scales. When observed under a microscope, the authors saw the device move uni-directionally as planned, but with the tail first. They suspect this is due to whether the disturbances in the flagella propagate from the head to the free end (as in most natural cases) or in the opposite direction (which occurred in this case).

Soft Matter aspects

Although we have typically studied stationary, non-living systems in this course, novel behavior in complex fluids could be created by applying magnetic fields to specially constructed systems. One possibility would be to have magnetic beads dispersed throughout a polymer network.

Additional Entry: Xu Zhang, AP225 Fall 2009


Re´mi Dreyfus, Jean Baudry, Marcus L. Roper, Marc Fermigier, Howard A. Stone & Je´roˆme Bibette,Microscopic artificial swimmers, Nature, Vol 437, 862-865, |6 October 2005


flagellum, Sperm number, magnetic field


Figure 1: Schematic representation of a flexible magnetic filament.
Figure 2: Beating pattern of the motion of a magnetic flexible filament attached to a red blood cell.

This paper shows that a linear chain of colloidal magnetic particles linked by DNA and attached to a red blood cell can act as a flexible artificial flagellum. The filament aligns with an external uniform magnetic field and is readily actuated by oscillating a transverse field. It is found that the actuation induces a beating pattern that propels the structure, and that the external fields can be adjusted to control the velocity and the direction of motion.

The microscopic device consists of two parts: a magnetically activated 'flagellum' that provides propulsion, and a second part, a red blood cell to be transported. The flagellum is made of superparamagnetic 1-<math>\mu m</math>-diameter colloids linked by several 107-nm-long (315 base pairs, bp) double-stranded DNA linkers(Fig.1). Two magnetic fields are used to generate motion in a controlled direction and with a controlled speed: one homogeneous static field B<math>_x=B_x</math>x and a sinusoidal field B<math>_y=B_ysin(2\pi ft)</math>y perpendicular to B<math>_x</math>. These two fields have comparable amplitude so that the resulting field B<math>_e</math> oscillates around the x axis. A fast camera is used to record the dynamics of a microstructure formed by a red blood cell specifically bound to one end of a 30-<math>\mu</math>m-long filament(Fig.2). The wave propagation, which is responsible for the non reversible displacements of the filament, is visible in Fig.3 indicated by the arrows.

Figure 3: Sequence of deformation of the end of a free filament.

Soft Matter Connection

It is so fresh to see engineered flagellum using colloidal particles and DNA linkers. The use of magnetic field to propel linked magnetic particles is a brilliant idea. It comes to my mind that we can also make use of other effects to propel the filament.Instead of using uniform colloidal particles, we can Janus particles which have different physical characteristics on two sides. For example, we can use half coated gold particles and put the filaments in a polymer solution. By applying expanded laser light, we can get a temperature gradient on two sides the particles resulted from the different absorption on two sides. Due to Soret effect, the polymers around the particles will have asymmetrical distribution thus pushing the particles on one direction. As a result, the filament might be propelled either in a translational way or in a more complicated way depending on different designs.