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Open Access Research article

Spindles and active vortices in a model of confined filament-motor mixtures

David A Head123*, WJ Briels2 and Gerhard Gompper1

Author affiliations

1 Theoretical Soft Matter and Biophysics, Institute of Complex Systems, Forschungszentrum Jülich, 52425 Jülich, Germany

2 Computational Biophysics, University of Twente, 7500 AE Enschede, The Netherlands

3 School of Computing, Leeds University, Leeds LS2 9JT, UK

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Citation and License

BMC Biophysics 2011, 4:18  doi:10.1186/2046-1682-4-18

Published: 16 November 2011

Abstract

Background

Robust self-organization of subcellular structures is a key principle governing the dynamics and evolution of cellular life. In fission yeast cells undergoing division, the mitotic spindle spontaneously emerges from the interaction of microtubules, motor proteins and the confining cell walls, and asters and vortices have been observed to self-assemble in quasi-two dimensional microtubule-kinesin assays. There is no clear microscopic picture of the role of the active motors driving this pattern formation, and the relevance of continuum modeling to filament-scale structures remains uncertain.

Results

Here we present results of numerical simulations of a discrete filament-motor protein model confined to a pressurised cylindrical box. Stable spindles, nematic configurations, asters and high-density semi-asters spontaneously emerge, the latter pair having also been observed in cytosol confined within emulsion droplets. State diagrams are presented delineating each stationary state as the pressure, motor speed and motor density are varied. We further highlight a parameter regime where vortices form exhibiting collective rotation of all filaments, but have a finite life-time before contracting to a semi-aster. Quantifying the distribution of life-times suggests this contraction is a Poisson process. Equivalent systems with fixed volume exhibit persistent vortices with stochastic switching in the direction of rotation, with switching times obeying similar statistics to contraction times in pressurised systems. Furthermore, we show that increasing the detachment rate of motors from filament plus-ends can both destroy vortices and turn some asters into vortices.

Conclusions

We have shown that discrete filament-motor protein models provide new insights into the stationary and dynamical behavior of active gels and subcellular structures, because many phenomena occur on the length-scale of single filaments. Based on our findings, we argue the need for a deeper understanding of the microscopic activities underpinning macroscopic self-organization in active gels and urge further experiments to help bridge these lengths.