EGU General Assembly 2022
© Author(s) 2022. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Navigation of micro-swimmers in steady flow: the importance of symmetries

Bernhard Mehlig
Bernhard Mehlig
  • Department of Physics, University of Gothenburg, Sweden (

Marine micro-organisms must cope with complex flow patterns and even turbulence as they navigate the ocean. To survive they must avoid predation and find efficient energy sources. A major difficulty in analysing possible survival strategies is that the time series of environmental cues in non-linear flow is complex, and that it depends on the decisions taken by the organism. One way of determining and evaluating optimal strategies is reinforcement learning. In a proof-of-principle study, Colabrese et al. [Phys. Rev. Lett. (2017)] used this method to find out how a micro-swimmer in a vortex flow can navigate towards the surface as quickly as possible, given a fixed swimming speed.  The swimmer measured its instantaneous swimming direction and the local flow vorticity in the laboratory frame, and reacted to these cues by swimming either left, right, up, or down. However, usually a motile micro-organism measures the local flow rather than global information, and it can only react in relation to the local flow, because in general it cannot access global information (such as up or down in the laboratory frame). Here we analyse optimal strategies with local signals and actions that do not refer to the laboratory frame. We demonstrate that symmetry-breaking is required to find such strategies. Using reinforcement learning we analyse the emerging  strategies for different sets of environmental cues that micro-organisms are known to measure. This talk is based on "Navigation of micro-swimmers in steady flow: the importance of symmetries" by Jingran Qiu, [Opens in a new win Navid Mousavi, Kristian Gustavsson[Opens in a new window], Chunxiao Xu, Bernhard Mehlig, and Lihao Zhao, Journal of Fluid Mechanics 932, A10. doi:10.1017/jfm.2021.978

How to cite: Mehlig, B.: Navigation of micro-swimmers in steady flow: the importance of symmetries, EGU General Assembly 2022, Vienna, Austria, 23–27 May 2022, EGU22-7811,, 2022.


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