Document Type



Mathematics (HMC)

Publication Date



In 1977 Berg and Purcell published a landmark paper entitled Physics of Chemore- ception, which examined how a bacterium can sense a chemical attractant in the fluid surrounding it [H. C. Berg and E. M. Purcell, Biophys J, 20 (1977), pp. 193–219]. At small scales the attrac- tant molecules move by Brownian motion and diffusive processes dominate. This example is the archetype of diffusive signaling problems where an agent moves via a random walk until it either strikes or eludes a target. Berg and Purcell modeled the target as a sphere with a set of small circular targets (pores) that can capture a diffusing agent. They argued that, in the limit of small radii and wide spacing, each pore could be modeled independently as a circular pore on an infinite plane. Using a known exact solution, they showed the capture rate to be proportional to the combined perimeter of the pores. In this paper we study how to improve this approximation by including interpore competition effects and verify this result numerically for a finite collection of pores on a plane or a sphere. Asymptotically we have found the corrections to the Berg–Purcell formula that account for the enhancement of capture due to the curvature of the spherical target and the inhibition of capture due to the spatial interaction of the pores. Numerically we develop a spectral boundary ele- ment method for the exterior mixed Neumann–Dirichlet boundary value problem. Our formulation reduces the problem to a linear integral equation, specifically a Neumann to Dirichlet map, which is supported only on the individual pores. The difficulty is that both the kernel and the flux are singular, a notorious obstacle in such problems. A judicious choice of singular boundary elements allows us to resolve the flux singularity at the edge of the pore. In biological systems there can be thousands of receptors whose radii are 0.1% the radius of the cell. Our numerics can now resolve this realistic limit with an accuracy of roughly one part in 108.