Mathematical embryology: the fluid mechanics of nodal cilia

David Smith, Andrew Smith, John Blake

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

27 Citations (Scopus)


Left-right symmetry breaking is critical to vertebrate embryonic development; in many species this process begins with cilia-driven flow in a structure termed the 'node'. Primary 'whirling' cilia, tilted towards the posterior, transport morphogen-containing vesicles towards the left, initiating left-right asymmetric development. Recent theoretical models based on the point-force stokeslet and point-torque rotlet singularities, explaining how rotation and surface-tilt produce directional flow are reviewed. Analysis of image-singularity systems enforcing the no-slip condition shows how tilted rotation produces a far-field 'stresslet' directional flow, and how time-dependent point-force and time-independent point-torque models are in this respect equivalent. Associated slender-body-theory analysis is reviewed; this approach enables efficient and accurate simulation of three-dimensional time-dependent flow, time-dependence being essential in predicting features of the flow such as chaotic advection, which have subsequently been determined experimentally. A new model for the nodal flow utilising the regularized stokeslet method is developed, to model the effect of the overlying Reichert's membrane. Velocity fields and particle paths within the enclosed domain are computed and compared with the flow profiles predicted by previous 'membrane-less' models. Computations confirm that the presence of the membrane produces flow-reversal in the upper region, but no continuous region of reverse flow close to the epithelium. The stresslet far-field is no longer evident in the membrane model, due to the depth of the cavity being of similar magnitude to the cilium length. Simulations predict that vesicles released within one cilium length of the epithelium are generally transported to the left via a 'loopy drift' motion, sometimes involving highly unpredictable detours around leftward cilia. Particles released just above the cilia tips were not predicted to reach to the extreme edges of the node, but rather are returned to the right by the counterflow. Flow to the right and left of the cilia array is of very small magnitude, suggesting that effective transport of particles to the extremities of the node requires cilia to be distributed all the way to the edges. There is no continuous layer of rightward flow close to the epithelium, except for a region close to the posterior edge of the node. Future work will involve investigating issues such as the precise shape of the node and cilia distribution and the effect of advection and diffusion on morphogens, hence explaining more fully the role of fluid mechanics in this vital developmental process.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)255-279
Number of pages25
JournalJournal of Engineering Mathematics
Publication statusPublished - 20 Jul 2011


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