Dynamic supercoiling bifurcations of growing elastic filaments

Charles W. Wolgemuth, Raymond E. Goldstein, Thomas R. Powers

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

24 Scopus citations


Certain bacteria form filamentous colonies when the cells fail to separate after dividing. In Bacillus subtilis, Bacillus thermus, and Cyanobacteria, the filaments can wrap into complex supercoiled structures as the cells grow. The structures may be solenoids or plectonemes, with or without branches in the latter case. Any microscopic theory of these morphological instabilities must address the nature of pattern selection in the presence of growth, for growth renders the problem nonautonomous and the bifurcations dynamic. To gain insight into these phenomena, we formulate a general theory for growing elastic filaments with bending and twisting resistance in a viscous medium, and study an illustrative model problem: a growing filament with preferred twist, closed into a loop. Growth depletes the twist, inducing a twist strain. The closure of the loop prevents the filament from unwinding back to the preferred twist; instead, twist relaxation is accomplished by the formation of supercoils. Growth also produces viscous stresses on the filament which even in the absence of twist produce buckling instabilities. Our linear stability analysis and numerical studies reveal two dynamic regimes. For small intrinsic twist the instability is akin to Euler buckling, leading to solenoidal structures, while for large twist it is like the classic writhing of a twisted filament, producing plectonemic windings. This model may apply to situations in which supercoils form only, or more readily, when axial rotation of filaments is blocked. Applications to specific biological systems are proposed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)266-289
Number of pages24
JournalPhysica D: Nonlinear Phenomena
Issue number3-4
StatePublished - Apr 1 2004


  • Elastic filaments
  • Filamentous bacteria
  • Growth
  • Supercoil

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Statistical and Nonlinear Physics
  • Mathematical Physics
  • Condensed Matter Physics
  • Applied Mathematics


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