The optimal elastic flagellum

  • Spagnolie S
  • Lauga E
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Motile eukaryotic cells propel themselves in viscous fluids by passing waves of bending deformation down their flagella. An infinitely long flagellum achieves a hydrodynamically optimal low-Reynolds number locomotion when the angle between its local tangent and the swimming direction remains constant along its length. Optimal flagella therefore adopt the shape of a helix in three dimensions (smooth) and that of a sawtooth in two dimensions (non-smooth). Physically, biological organisms (or engineered micro-swimmers) must expend internal energy in order to produce the waves of deformation responsible for the motion. Here we propose a physically-motivated derivation of the optimal flagellum shape. We determine analytically and numerically the shape of the flagellar wave which leads to the fastest swimming while minimizing an appropriately-defined energetic expenditure. Our novel approach is to define an energy which includes not only the work against the surrounding fluid, but also (1) the energy stored elastically in the bending of the flagellum, (2) the energy stored elastically in the internal sliding of the polymeric filaments which are responsible for the generation of the bending waves (microtubules), and (3) the viscous dissipation due to the presence of an internal fluid. This approach regularizes the optimal sawtooth shape for two-dimensional deformation at the expense of a small loss in hydrodynamic efficiency. The optimal waveforms of finite-size flagella are shown to depend upon a competition between rotational motions and bending costs, and we observe a surprising bias towards half-integer wave-numbers. Their final hydrodynamic efficiencies are above 6%, significantly larger than those of swimming cells, therefore indicating available room for further biological tuning.

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  • Saverio E. Spagnolie

  • Eric Lauga

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