Zheng Zhu and Quan-Xing Liu
The metabolism of a living organism (e.g. bacteria, algae, zooplankton) requires a continuous uptake of nutrients from the surrounding environment. However, within local spatial scales, nutrients are quickly used up under dense concentrations of organisms. Here, we report that self-spinning dinoflagellates Symbiodinium sp. (clade E) generate a microscale flow that mitigates competition and enhances the uptake of nutrients from the surrounding environment. Our experimental and theoretical results reveal that this incessant active behavior enhances transport by approximately 80-fold when compared with Brownian motion in living fluids. We found that the tracer ensemble probability density function for displacement is time-dependent, but consists of a Gaussian core and robust exponential tails (so-called non-Gaussian diffusion). This can be explained by interactions of far-field Brownian motions and a near-field entrainment effect along with microscale flows. The contribution of exponential tails sharply increases with algal density, and saturates at a critical density, implying a trade-off between aggregated benefit and negative competition for the spatially self-organized cells. Our work thus shows that active motion and migration of aquatic algae play key roles in diffusive transport and should be included in theoretical and numerical models of physical and biogeochemical ecosystems.