Back to Publications


Controlling organization and forces in active matter through optically defined boundaries

Nature 572(7768)
Ross, T.D.Lee, H.J.Qu, Z.Banks, R.A.Phillips, R.Thomson, M. Division of Biology and Biological Engineering,
Department of Applied Physics,
Department of Physics,
California Institute of Technology,
Pasadena, California, USA
2018 Physics

Living systems are capable of locomotion, reconfiguration, and replication. To perform these tasks, cells spatiotemporally coordinate the interactions of force-generating, “active” molecules that create and manipulate non-equilibrium structures and force fields that span up to millime- ter length scales [1–3]. Experimental active matter systems of biological or synthetic molecules are capable of spontaneously organizing into structures [4, 5] and generating global flows [6– 9]. However, these experimental systems lack the spatiotemporal control found in cells, lim- iting their utility for studying non-equilibrium phenomena and bioinspired engineering.

Here, we uncover non-equilibrium phenomena and principles by optically controlling structures and fluid flow in an engineered system of active biomolecules. Our engineered system consists of purified microtubules and light-activatable motor proteins that crosslink and organize micro- tubules into distinct structures upon illumination. We develop basic operations, defined as sets of light patterns, to create, move, and merge microtubule structures.

By composing these basic operations, we are able to create microtubule networks that span several hundred microns in length and contract at speeds up to an order of magnitude faster than the speed of an individ- ual motor. We manipulate these contractile networks to generate and sculpt persistent fluid flows. The principles of boundary-mediated control we uncover may be used to study emergent cellular structures and forces and to develop programmable active matter devices.

The article was published in: Nature 572(7768): 224-229.

Full article

This work was supported (in part) by the Fetzer Franklin Fund of the John E. Fetzer Memorial Trust.