Swimming microorganisms acquire optimal efficiency with multiple cilia

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10 Citations (Scopus)


Planktonic microorganisms are ubiquitous in water, and their population dynamics are essential for forecasting the behavior of global aquatic ecosystems. Their population dynamics are strongly affected by these organisms’ motility, which is generated by their hair-like organelles, called cilia or flagella. However, because of the complexity of ciliary dynamics, the precise role of ciliary flow in microbial life remains unclear. Here, we have used ciliary hydrodynamics to show that ciliates acquire the optimal propulsion efficiency. We found that ciliary flow highly resists an organism’s propulsion and that the swimming velocity rapidly decreases with body size, proportional to the power of minus two. Accordingly, the propulsion efficiency decreases as the cube of body length. By increasing the number of cilia, however, efficiency can be significantly improved, up to 100-fold. We found that there exists an optimal number density of cilia, which provides the maximum propulsion efficiency for all ciliates. The propulsion efficiency in this case decreases inversely proportionally to body length. Our estimated optimal density of cilia corresponds to those of actual microorganisms, including species of ciliates and microalgae, which suggests that now-existing motile ciliates and microalgae have survived by acquiring the optimal propulsion efficiency. These conclusions are helpful for better understanding the ecology of microorganisms, such as the energetic costs and benefits of multicellularity in Volvocaceae, as well as for the optimal design of artificial microswimmers.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)30201-30207
Number of pages7
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number48
Publication statusPublished - 2020 Dec 1


  • Hydrodynamics | cilia | microswimmer | low Reynolds number

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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