research lines

Active Matter

. Science of Matter

Condensed matter systems composed of self-propelled units operating far from thermodynamic equilibrium belong to the realm of active matter. Such active “particles” possess internal degrees of freedom that allow them to self propel by extracting energy from their environment and dissipating it to move in a preferred direction. Interaction between these elements originates patterns of self-organization and characteristic flows similar to those found in natural flocking systems. Flocking is very frequent in nature. Indeed the phenomenon can be observed at a broad range of length scales, from mammal herds and fish schools to bacteria colonies and cellular migrations.  These systems give rise to new fundamental questions and the possibility of synthesizing new types of smart materials, for example, those based on assemblies of filamentous proteins and molecular motors.

Researchers at UBICS are investigating how biological cells sense and respond to mechanical stimuli, which involves the interplay of several cytoskeletal constituents: primarily filaments, such as actin microfilaments or microtubules, crosslinking proteins, and molecular motors. The transport of various types of cargoes in cells is, for example, based on molecular motors moving along the cytoskeleton. Often, these motors work in teams rather than as isolated molecules. Our studies attempt to understand the effects of elastic coupling on (i) the dynamics of motor complexes (small number of motors), and (ii) the mechanical stability of actin assemblies. Another line of research investigates the propulsion of colloidal systems at the micro/nanoscale. It has recently been demonstrated that elongated DNA-linked paramagnetic colloids subjected to external precessing fields are capable to propel in a controlled way in viscous fluids. Future investigations will focus on determining interactions among micro-swimmers and the role played by hydrodynamic interactions, and on implementing optical forces to test swimmers’ performance and their constrained motion into microscopic pores or microfluidic networks. As stated before, flocking is a phenomenon by which a general class of self-propelled entities, using limited environmental information and simple rules, organize themselves into an ordered state of motion. In some cases, interactions among moving entities are quite heterogeneous, and this feature has an important impact on collective motion. The presence of heterogeneous social interactions, naturally represented in terms of social networks, has been, for instance, observed in mammals and fish. UBICS researchers are also investigating the effects of such a broad class of interactions among group members, as well as behavioral contagion, on flocking dynamics.