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Biomimetic Cilia

Living systems employ cilia to control and to sense the flow of fluids for many purposes, such as pumping, locomotion, feeding, and tissue morphogenesis. Beyond their use in biology, functional arrays of artificial cilia have been envisaged as a potential biomimetic strategy for inducing fluid flow and mixing in lab-on-a-chip devices.

In work published in PNAS, researchers in the Superfine Group report on fluid transport produced by magnetically actuated arrays of biomimetic cilia whose size approaches that of their biological counterparts, a scale at which advection and diffusion compete to determine mass transport.

Their biomimetic cilia recreate the beat shape of embryonic nodal cilia, simultaneously generating two sharply segregated regimes of fluid flow. Above the cilia tips their motion causes directed, long-range fluid transport, whereas below the tips they show that the cilia beat generates an enhanced diffusivity capable of producing increased mixing rates. These two distinct types of flow occur simultaneously and are separated in space by less than 5 μm, approximately 20% of the biomimetic cilium length. While this suggests that the system may have applications as a versatile microfluidics device, the group also focus on the biological implications of their findings.

The group members’ statistical analysis of particle transport identifying an enhanced diffusion regime provides novel evidence for the existence of mixing in ciliated systems, and they demonstrate that the directed transport regime is Poiseuille–Couette flow, the first analytical model consistent with biological measurements of fluid flow in the embryonic node.