High-precision tracking of sperm swimming fine structure provides strong test of resistive force theory

B. M. Friedrich, I. H. Riedel-Kruse, J. Howard, F. Jülicher

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

119 Scopus citations


The shape of the flagellar beat determines the path along which a sperm cell swims. If the flagellum bends periodically about a curved mean shape then the sperm will follow a path with non-zero curvature. To test a simple hydrodynamic theory of flagellar propulsion known as resistive force theory, we conducted high-precision measurements of the head and flagellum motions during circular swimming of bull spermatozoa near a surface. We found that the fine structure of sperm swimming represented by the rapid wiggling of the sperm head around an averaged path is, to high accuracy, accounted for by resistive force theory and results from balancing forces and torques generated by the beating flagellum. We determined the anisotropy ratio between the normal and tangential hydrodynamic friction coefficients of the flagellum to be 1.81 ±0.07 (mean±s.d.). On time scales longer than the flagellar beat cycle, sperm cells followed circular paths of non-zero curvature. Our data show that path curvature is approximately equal to twice the average curvature of the flagellum, consistent with quantitative predictions of resistive force theory. Hence, this theory accurately predicts the complex trajectories of sperm cells from the detailed shape of their flagellar beat across different time scales.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1226-1234
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Experimental Biology
Issue number8
StatePublished - Apr 15 2010
Externally publishedYes


  • Curvature
  • Flagellar beat pattern
  • Flagellar propulsion
  • Sperm cell

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Physiology
  • Aquatic Science
  • Animal Science and Zoology
  • Molecular Biology
  • Insect Science


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