October 26, 2013

Green algae move to the beat

Max Planck researchers in Dresden explain the flagellar synchronisation of swimming algae

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.