Video Pick: Engineering Artificial Cilia

Cilia and flagella, the protrusions that cells use for propulsion and sensing, often wave spontaneously. Zvonimir Dogic, a physicist at Brandeis University, wanted to understand what about their structure drives this waving motion so he fabricated artificial versions in the lab. Although much simpler, they will also spontaneously flap.

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IRA FLATOW, Host:

Time now for our Video Pick of the Week. Flora Lichtman, our multimedia editor is here. Welcome, Flora.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Hi, Ira. Thanks.

FLATOW: What have we go this week? It's nothing with a skin on it, peeling back or something though.

LICHTMAN: That's - yeah, kind of.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: It depends how - what kind of look you give it. But this week, the video is about engineering artificial cilia. And just as a little recap, reminder, think of a paramecium...

Right.

LICHTMAN: ...and the little hairs on the outside of it that propel it around, that sort of flap around in the - its environment and move it, those are cilia.

FLATOW: Those are cilia, the little hairy things.

LICHTMAN: So you might be thinking why make artificial cilia?

FLATOW: Why, right, right. Why?

LICHTMAN: In fact, I had this kind of funny miscommunication with the (unintelligible) author, Zvonimir Dogic, who I said, yeah, it reminds me of sort of a prosthetic - of a prosthesis. And he was like, well, I don't think we're going to be doing transplants.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: But he's making artificial cilia.

LICHTMAN: Yes. So he's making these artificial things because cilia, it turns out, and flagella, which are the same structures, are really complicated. There are 650 different proteins in these structures. And their trademark feature, most of them, is that they flap spontaneously. They sort of wave around on their own. No one is controlling that and...

FLATOW: There are no nerves in there that click them off or anything.

LICHTMAN: No. No master control. So the question is what is it about this structure that produces this motion? But it's so complicated that he wondered, you know, could we do a cheap knockoff basically.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: I feel I'm on 47th Street here.

LICHTMAN: Yeah, exactly, on the table.

FLATOW: Silly, I got real cilia. But he made - he actually made artificial cilia and he coded things with it?

LICHTMAN: Yes. So they're way simpler. There are four ingredients only and he stuck them to air bubbles, and they automatically attach. You put them in a Petri dish and then they'll just stick to these air bubbles. And it turns out that they, too, even the simpler knockoff version, will do this flapping motion. So they think that they've gotten some clues into why this works.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. So on our Video Pick of the Week, which is up there in our website at sciencefriday.com, you actually narrate this whole beautiful - they're actually pretty-looking things.

LICHTMAN: They're really beautiful.

FLATOW: Yeah.

LICHTMAN: They're like - it's like the sun's corona is sort of what it reminded me of. If you didn't know the scale, you might think it was from outer space. But it's not...

FLATOW: And the scale is really tiny.

LICHTMAN: Really tiny. I think the longest one they made was like the width of a human hair. That's the length. So they're really small. And they only last for, like, 24 hours before they degrade.

FLATOW: I just found a while that he can actually create basically artificial, mechanical waving little things like cilia.

LICHTMAN: Yeah. Exactly. It's really neat. You see, he wondered if, you know, for a future materials because they'll move debris along, you know, part of them - he describes it as - when you put a lot of them together as like the wave in a football stadium when you see people doing the wave, right, that's what they, sort of, look like when they're together.

FLATOW: Are they coordinating with each other?

LICHTMAN: Yeah.

FLATOW: Are they waving at the same time?

LICHTMAN: They push each other along, so it's - yeah. It's a little - it's almost creepy because, you know, they seem very coordinate even though they're absolutely fabricated, artificial things.

FLATOW: He didn't tell you where he goes from here?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: (Unintelligible) like, more and more complicated versions. I mean, he said actually that he's done, like any imitation, it's not quite as good as the original.

FLATOW: Right.

LICHTMAN: They are a lot slower than the real cilia.

FLATOW: Right, right.

LICHTMAN: But the idea is, can you build them up, make them even better?

FLATOW: That's right. All right. We'll wait for the sequel to cilia at SCIENCE FRIDAY. Thank you, Flora.

LICHTMAN: Yeah. Thanks, Ira.

FLATOW: And you can see that Video Pick of the Week. It's up there on our website at sciencefriday.com. And you can actually take it with you, watch it, take it with you on your iPhone or iPad and take it and watch it later.

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