Viscoelastic properties of the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans, a self-similar, shear-thinning worm
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Undulatory motion is common to many creatures across many scales, from sperm to snakes. These organisms must push off against their external environment, such as a viscous medium, grains of sand, or a high-friction surface; additionally they must work to bend their own body. A full understanding of undulatory motion, and locomotion in general, requires the characterization of the material properties of the animal itself. The material properties of the model organism Caenorhabditis elegans were studied with a micromechanical experiment used to carry out a three-point bending measurement of the worm. Worms at various developmental stages (including dauer) were measured and different positions along the worm were probed. From these experiments we calculated the viscoelastic properties of the worm, including the effective spring constant and damping coefficient of bending. C. elegans moves by propagating sinusoidal waves along its body. Whereas previous viscoelastic approaches to describe the undulatory motion have used a Kelvin-Voigt model, where the elastic and viscous components are connected in parallel, our measurements show that the Maxwell model, where the elastic and viscous components are in series, is more appropriate. The viscous component of the worm was shown to be consistent with a non-Newtonian, shear-thinning fluid. We find that as the worm matures it is well described as a self-similar elastic object with a shear-thinning damping term and a stiffness that becomes smaller as one approaches the tail.
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