Fish Model Unlocks Keys to Movement

November 9, 2010 5:45 AM

New Wave staff

Lisa Fauci and other scientists at Tulane University and the University of Maryland have developed a computational model of a swimming fish that is the first to address the interaction of both internal and external forces on locomotion. The interdisciplinary research team simulated how the fish’s flexible body bends, depending on both the forces from the fluid moving around it as well as the muscles inside.


Lisa Fauci, professor of mathematics, develops models and computational simulations to gain insight into complex biological systems where flexible structures interact with a surrounding fluid. (Photo by Guillermo Cabrera-Rojo)

Understanding these interactions, even in fish, may help scientists design medical prosthetics for humans that work with the body’s natural mechanics, rather than against them, the researchers said.  Their work is published in the Oct. 18 online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Fauci, professor of mathematics in the School of Science and Engineering, is developing models and simulations to gain insight into complex biological systems where flexible structures interact with a surrounding fluid.

“It is incredibly rewarding to work with biologists who embrace scientific computing as an essential facet of research, and to see that our simulations can address fundamental questions in physiology,” Fauci said.

Previous studies examined body mechanics separately from fluid mechanics. This is the first time that anyone has put together a computational framework to simulate the process for large, fast animals like fishes, said Eric D. Tytell, who conducted the work as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Maryland.

Understanding the principles of animal movement could help to design and inspire engineered systems, including robots and medical prosthetics, the researchers said. This simulation was developed for the lamprey, a primitive vertebrate whose nervous system is being used as a model to develop prosthetic devices for people with spinal cord injuries.

Chia-yu Hsu, a postdoctoral researcher at Tulane, and Tytell performed simulations with different values for various body and fluid properties. The simulations demonstrate that matching mechanical properties of future prosthetic devices to the body’s natural mechanics will be crucial.

The team plans to continue working with the model to try to understand how fish maneuver so agilely through turbulent water.


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Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000