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Syracuse University physicists awarded grant study collective behavior of active matter

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A physicist in the College of Arts and Sciences has been awarded a major grant to support her ongoing study of active matter–collections of self-driven entities that take energy from the environment to produce coordinated motion.

Syracuse's newest Distinguished Professor, M. Cristina Marchetti, is using a $420,000 award from the National Science Foundation to characterize the physics of organization in nature, from the flocking behavior of birds to the coordinated motion of cells in morphogenesis, the biological process in which an organism develops its shape.

"One may think that the organization seen in many living systems is controlled by complex communication pathways or biochemical signaling," says Marchetti, who doubles as the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Physics. "But over the past 20 years, researchers have shown that many aspects of organization are captured by simple physical rules, similar to those that control the organization of inert [non-living] matter. This gives us a powerful new mathematical framework with which to quantify coordinated behaviors that are different from those of individuals.''

Marchetti is focusing on Myxococcus xanthus, a soil-dwelling bacterium that seems to "glide" on a solid surface, without use of a flagellum. Myxo, as it is colloquially called, has a complex life cycle controlled by interactions with other individuals and environmental cues.

"One of our goals is to provide a mathematical framework for describing the aggregation of myxo under starvation conditions, as well as different transformations triggered by physical mechanisms, as opposed to, say, genetics," Marchetti says. "This could reduce the vast number of genetic possibilities that have to be investigated to understand the developmental cycle of these bacteria."

Using theory and computer simulations, she and her students will work with experimentalists from Syracuse and Princeton to develop minimal rules for emergent behavior in myxo.

Marchetti also studies synthetic systems with life-life properties, including microswimmers, which are powered by chemical reactions and can assemble into predesigned structures, and swarms of nanobots, capable of self-organized behavior. Her research team is particularly intent on figuring out how synthetic microswimmers may be used to assemble and organize inert particles.

"Our dream is to formulate rules that enable us to engineer smart materials, capable of activity assembly, active-assembly, reconfiguration and self-healing," says Marchetti, who will be assisted by postdoctoral researchers, graduate students and undergraduates. "The interdisciplinary nature of this work creates opportunities for students to be trained at the interface of physical and life science. … We are committed to providing graduate training that crosses traditional disciplinary boundaries."

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Rob Enslin
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