Active matter is describes systems whose constituent elements consume energy and are thus out-of-equilibrium. Examples include flocks or herds of animals, collections of cells, and components of the cellular cytoskeleton. When these objects interact with each other, collective behavior can emerge that is unlike anything possible with an equilibrium system. The types of behaviors and the factors that control them however, remain incompletely understood. In a recent paper in Physical Review Letters, “Excitable patterns in active nematics“, Giomi and coworkers develop a continuum theoretical description motivated by recent experiments from the Dogic group at Brandeis in which microtubules (filamentous cytoskeletal molecules) and clusters of kinesin (a molecular motor) exhibit dramatic spatiotemporal fluctuations in density and alignment. Specifically, they consider a hydrodynamic description for density, flow, and nematic alignment. In contrast to previous theories of this type, the degree of nematic alignment is allowed to vary in space and time. Remarkably, the theory predicts that the interplay between non-uniform nematic order, activity and flow results in spatially modulated relaxation oscillations, similar to those seen in excitable media and biological examples such as the cardiac cycle. At even higher activity the dynamics is chaotic and leads to large-scale swirling patterns which resemble those seen in recent experiments. An example of the flow pattern is shown below left, and the nematic order parameter, which describes the degree of alignment of the filaments, as shown for the same configuration below right. These predictions can be tested in future experiments on systems of microtubules and motor proteins.
The system behavior for an active nematic at high activity. (left) The velocity field (arrows) is superimposed on a plot of the concentration of active nematogens (green=large concentration, red=small concentration). (right) A plot of the nematic order parameter, S, (blue=large S, brown=small S) is superimposed on a plot of the nematic director (arrows). The flow under high activity is characterized by large vortices that span lengths of the order of the system size and the director field is organized in grains.