Publications associated with Condensed Matter Theory

Enhanced bacterial swimming speeds in macromolecular polymer solutions

Nature Physics (2019)

A Zöttl, JM Yeomans

© 2019, The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature Limited. The locomotion of swimming bacteria in simple Newtonian fluids can successfully be described within the framework of low-Reynolds-number hydrodynamics 1 . The presence of polymers in biofluids generally increases the viscosity, which is expected to lead to slower swimming for a constant bacterial motor torque. Surprisingly, however, experiments have shown that bacterial speeds can increase in polymeric fluids 2–5 . Whereas, for example, artificial helical microswimmers in shear-thinning fluids 6 or swimming Caenorhabditis elegans worms in wet granular media 7,8 increase their speeds substantially, swimming Escherichia coli bacteria in polymeric fluids show just a small increase in speed at low polymer concentrations, followed by a decrease at higher concentrations 2,4 . The mechanisms behind this behaviour are currently unclear, and therefore we perform extensive coarse-grained simulations of a bacterium swimming in explicitly modelled solutions of macromolecular polymers of different lengths and densities. We observe an increase of up to 60% in swimming speed with polymer density and demonstrate that this is due to a non-uniform distribution of polymers in the vicinity of the bacterium, leading to an apparent slip. However, this in itself cannot predict the large increase in swimming velocity: coupling to the chirality of the bacterial flagellum is also necessary.

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