The morphological dynamics, instabilities, and transitions of elastic filaments in viscous flows underlie a wealth of biophysical processes from flagellar propulsion to intracellular streaming and are also key to deciphering the rheological behavior of many complex fluids and soft materials. Here, we combine experiments and computational modeling to elucidate the dynamical regimes and morphological transitions of elastic Brownian filaments in a simple shear flow. Actin filaments are used as an experimental model system and their conformations are investigated through fluorescence microscopy in microfluidic channels. Simulations matching the experimental conditions are also performed using inextensible Euler-Bernoulli beam theory and nonlocal slender-body hydrodynamics in the presence of thermal fluctuations and agree quantitatively with observations. We demonstrate that filament dynamics in this system are primarily governed by a dimensionless elasto-viscous number comparing viscous drag forces to elastic bending forces, with thermal fluctuations playing only a secondary role. While short and rigid filaments perform quasi-periodic tumbling motions, a buckling instability arises above a critical flow strength. A second transition to strongly deformed shapes occurs at a yet larger value of the elasto-viscous number and is characterized by the appearance of localized high-curvature bends that propagate along the filaments in apparent "snaking" motions. A theoretical model for the as yet unexplored onset of snaking accurately predicts the transition and explains the observed dynamics. We present a complete characterization of filament morphologies and transitions as a function of elasto-viscous number and scaled persistence length and demonstrate excellent agreement between theory, experiments, and simulations.
Keywords: actin filaments; buckling instabilities; flexible fibers; fluid structure interactions.