Topological structure and dynamics of three-dimensional active nematics

Topological structures are effective descriptors of the nonequilibrium dynamics of diverse many-body systems. For example, motile, point-like topological defects capture the salient features of two-dimensional active liquid crystals composed of energy-consuming anisotropic units. We dispersed force-generating microtubule bundles in a passive colloidal liquid crystal to form a three-dimensional active nematic. Light-sheet microscopy revealed the temporal evolution of the millimeter-scale structure of these active nematics with single-bundle resolution. The primary topological excitations are extended, charge-neutral disclination loops that undergo complex dynamics and recombination events. Our work suggests a framework for analyzing the nonequilibrium dynamics of bulk anisotropic systems as diverse as driven complex fluids, active metamaterials, biological tissues, and collections of robots or organisms.