Use of chiral cell shape to ensure highly directional swimming in trypanosomes

PLoS Comput Biol. 2017 Jan 31;13(1):e1005353. doi: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1005353. eCollection 2017 Jan.


Swimming cells typically move along a helical path or undergo longitudinal rotation as they swim, arising from chiral asymmetry in hydrodynamic drag or propulsion bending the swimming path into a helix. Helical paths are beneficial for some forms of chemotaxis, but why asymmetric shape is so prevalent when a symmetric shape would also allow highly directional swimming is unclear. Here, I analyse the swimming of the insect life cycle stages of two human parasites; Trypanosoma brucei and Leishmania mexicana. This showed quantitatively how chirality in T. brucei cell shape confers highly directional swimming. High speed videomicrographs showed that T. brucei, L. mexicana and a T. brucei RNAi morphology mutant have a range of shape asymmetries, from wild-type T. brucei (highly chiral) to L. mexicana (near-axial symmetry). The chiral cells underwent longitudinal rotation while swimming, with more rapid longitudinal rotation correlating with swimming path directionality. Simulation indicated hydrodynamic drag on the chiral cell shape caused rotation, and the predicted geometry of the resulting swimming path matched the directionality of the observed swimming paths. This simulation of swimming path geometry showed that highly chiral cell shape is a robust mechanism through which microscale swimmers can achieve highly directional swimming at low Reynolds number. It is insensitive to random variation in shape or propulsion (biological noise). Highly symmetric cell shape can give highly directional swimming but is at risk of giving futile circular swimming paths in the presence of biological noise. This suggests the chiral T. brucei cell shape (associated with the lateral attachment of the flagellum) may be an adaptation associated with the bloodstream-inhabiting lifestyle of this parasite for robust highly directional swimming. It also provides a plausible general explanation for why swimming cells tend to have strong asymmetries in cell shape or propulsion.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological / physiology*
  • Cell Movement / physiology*
  • Cell Size*
  • Cell Tracking
  • Computer Simulation
  • Friction
  • Hydrodynamics
  • Microscopy, Video
  • Models, Biological*
  • Swimming / physiology
  • Trypanosoma / cytology*
  • Trypanosoma / physiology*
  • Viscosity