Great galloping algae! Can these tiny organisms really move like a horse?

A microscope images showing a species of algae which swims using tiny appendages known as flagella. Photo: Kirsty Wan and Raymond Goldstein
This microscope image shows two species of algae which swim using tiny appendages known as flagella. Photo: Kirsty Wan and Raymond Goldstein

New research reveals that even single-celled algae can coordinate tiny apendages to achieve a remarkable diversity of swimming gaits, even mimicking those of horses.

Long before there were fish swimming in the oceans, tiny microorganisms were using long slender appendages called cilia and flagella to navigate their watery habitats.

When it comes to four-legged animals such as horses, the concept of a gait is familiar, but what about single-celled green algae with multiple limb-like flagella?

The latest discovery, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that despite their simplicity, microalgae can coordinate their flagella into leaping, trotting or galloping gaits just as well as their four-legged counterparts.

Many gaits are periodic: whether it is the graceful gallop of a horse, the stylish walk of a cat, or the playful leap of a springbok. The key is the order or sequence in which these limbs are activated.

When springboks, an African member of the antelope family, arch their backs and leap, or “pronk”, they do so by lifting all four legs simultaneously high into the air, yet when horses trot it is the diagonally opposite legs that move together in time.

In vertebrates, gaits are controlled by central pattern generators, which can be thought of as networks of neural oscillators that coordinate output. Depending on the interaction between these oscillators, specific rhythms are produced, which, mathematically speaking, exhibit certain spatiotemporal symmetries.

In other words, the gait doesn’t change when one leg is swapped with another – perhaps at a different point in time, say a quarter-cycle or half-cycle later.

It turns out the same symmetries also characterise the swimming gaits of microalgae, which are far too simple to have neurons. For instance, microalgae with four flagella in various possible configurations can trot, pronk or gallop, depending on the species.

“When I peered through the microscope and saw that the alga was performing two sets of perfectly synchronous breaststrokes, one directly after the other, I was amazed,” said the paper’s first author, Dr Kirsty Wan, from the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at England’s University of Cambridge.

“I realised immediately that this behaviour could only be due to something inside the cell rather than passive hydrodynamics. Then, of course, to prove this I had to expand my species collection.”

The University of Cambridge researchers determined that it was in fact the networks of elastic fibres which connect the flagella deep within the cell that coordinate these diverse gaits.

In the simplest case of Chlamydomonas, which swims a breaststroke with two flagella, the absence of a particular fibre between the flagella leads to uncoordinated beating. Furthermore, deliberately preventing the beating of one flagellum in an alga with four flagella has zero effect on the sequence of beating in the remainder.

However, this does not mean that hydrodynamics play no role. In recent work from the same group, it was shown that nearby flagella can be synchronised solely by their mutual interaction through the fluid.

There is a distinction between unicellular organisms for which good coordination of a few flagella is essential, and multicellular species or tissues that possess a range of cilia and flagella. In the latter case, hydrodynamic interactions are much more important.

Professor Ray Goldstein, a specialist in complex physical systems at Cambridge, and senior author of the paper, said: “As physicists our instinct is to seek out generalisations and universal principles, but the world of biology often presents us with many fascinating counterexamples.

“Until now, there have been many competing theories regarding flagellar synchronisation, but I think we are finally making sense of how these different organisms make best use of what they have.”

The findings also raise intriguing questions about the evolution of the control of peripheral appendages, which must have arisen in the first instance in these primitive microorganisms.

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