Biomechanics can provide a new perspective on microbiology

Despite their tiny size, microorganisms play a huge role in many biological, medical, and engineering phenomena. For example, massive plankton blooms are an integral part of the oceanic ecosystem. Algal cells incorporate carbon dioxide, which affects global warming. In industry, microorganisms are used in bioreactors to produce food and medicines and to treat sewage. The human body hosts hundreds of microorganism species, and the number of microorganisms in the human body is roughly double the number of cells in the body. In the intestine, approximately 1 kg of enterobacteria form a unique ecosystem, called the gut flora, which plays important roles in digestion and in relation to infection. Because of the considerable influence that microorganisms have on human life, the study of their behavior and function is important.

Recent research has demonstrated the importance of biomechanics in understanding the behavior and functions of microorganisms. For example, red tides can be induced by the interplay between the background flow and swimming cells. A dense suspension of bacteria can generate a coherent structure, which strongly enhances mass transport in a suspension. These phenomena show that the physical environments around cells alter their behavior and biological functions. Such a biomechanical understanding is still lacking in microbiology, and we believe that biomechanics can provide new perspectives on future microbiology.

In this talk, we first introduce some of our studies of the behavior of individual swimming microorganisms near surfaces. We show that hydrodynamic forces can trap cells at liquid–air or liquid–solid interfaces. We then introduce interactions between a pair of swimming microorganisms, because a two-body interaction is the simplest many-body interaction. We show that our mathematical models can describe the interactions between two nearby swimming microorganisms. Collective motions formed by a group of swimming microorganisms are also introduced. We show that some collective motions of microorganisms, such as coherent structures of bacterial suspensions, can be understood in terms of fluid mechanics. We then discuss how cellular-level phenomena can change the rheological and diffusion properties of a suspension. The macroscopic properties of a suspension are strongly affected by mesoscale flow structures, which in turn are strongly affected by the interactions between cells. Hence, a bottom-up strategy, i.e., from a cellular level to a continuum suspension level, represents a natural approach to the study of a suspension of swimming microorganisms. Finally, we discuss whether our understanding of biological functions can be strengthened by the application of biomechanics, and how we can contribute to the future of microbiology.