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Scientists Reveal How Blue-Green Algae Weaves Itself Into Weblike Structures

Algae on water.
Credit: Liz Harrell / Unsplash.
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A team at Nottingham Trent University and Loughborough University has revealed the physical mechanism behind the geometric patterns formed of ‘cyanobacteria’, one of the oldest and most abundant forms of life on Earth, and which has played a pivotal role in the evolution of our planet.

Ancient cyanobacteria were the first life form to develop photosynthesis and are responsible for injecting oxygen into the Earth’s environment, thereby laying the foundation for the emergence of the complex life forms we are familiar with today.

Today’s cyanobacteria continue to play a key role in maintaining the composition of today’s atmosphere and oceans. To help it survive, many species also grow into long chains of cells that crawl across surfaces and weave together into large networks of closely-bundled filaments over hours or days.

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However, until now, the origin of these ‘reticulate’ or web-like patterns has puzzled scientists.

Using advanced microscopy techniques, simulations and theoretical models, the researchers have revealed how interactions between the thread-like filaments cause them to bundle together and build structures.  

They found that when cyanobacteria are present at a high enough density, they begin to organise into their reticulate pattern, as a result of only a few simple rules.

As the bacteria move, they bump into each other. In most instances, filaments pass over or under each other, but occasionally one deflects and turns to travel alongside another. These two filaments follow each other for a while, before one splits away.

These interactions lead to the formation of bundles of aligned filaments which organise denser colonies into sprawling networks.

Dr Lucas Goehring, Professor of Physics in Nottingham Trent University’s School of Science and Technology, said: “Cyanobacteria are among the Earth’s most abundant and ancient organisms and created photosynthesis. They are also perhaps the earliest organism to experiment with multicellularity.

“This hugely important, but unassuming, microorganism is involved in processes of global importance, such as the balance of oxygen and nitrogen. Despite its importance to the development of complex life, however, no mechanism has until now been identified to explain their collective behaviour.”

The research, for which PhD students Mixon Faluweki and Jan Cammann are co-lead authors, is published in the journal Physical Review Letters.

Reference: Faluweki MK, Cammann J, Mazza MG, Goehring L. Active Spaghetti: Collective Organization in Cyanobacteria. Phys Rev Lett. 2023;131(15):158303. doi: 10.1103/PhysRevLett.131.158303

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