Active gels, heavy tails, and the cytoskeleton
The eukaryotic cell's cytoskeleton is a prototypical example of an active material: objects embedded within it are driven by molecular motors acting on the cytoskeleton, leading to anomalous diffusive behavior. Experiments tracking the behavior of cell-attached objects have observed anomalous diffusion with a distribution of displacements that is non-Gaussian, with heavy tails. This has been attributed to “cytoquakes” or other spatially extended collective effects. We show, using simulations and analytical theory, that a simple continuum active gel model driven by fluctuating force dipoles naturally creates heavy power-law tails in cytoskeletal displacements. We predict that this power law exponent should depend on the geometry and dimensionality of where force dipoles are distributed through the cell; we find qualitatively different results for force dipoles in a 3D cytoskeleton and a quasi-two-dimensional cortex. We then discuss potential applications of this model both in cells and in synthetic active gels.