Mucus propelling cilia are excitable by many stimulants, and have been shown to increase their beating frequency up to threefold, by physiological extracellular stimulants, such as adenosine-triphosphate, acetylcholine, and others. This is thought to represent the evolutionary adaptation of mucociliary systems to the need of rapid and efficient cleansing the airways of foreign particles. However, themucus transport velocity depends not only on the beat frequency of the cilia, but on their beat pattern as well, especially in the case ofmucus bearing cilia that beat in a complex, three-dimensional fashion. In this study, we directly measured the force applied by live ciliary tissues with an atomic force microscope, and found that it increases linearly with the beating frequency. This implies that the arc swept by the cilia during their effective stroke remains unchanged during frequency increase, thus leading to a linear dependence of transport velocity on the beat frequency. Combining the atomic force microscope measurements with optical measurements, we have indications that the recovery stroke is performed on a less inclined plane, leading to an effective shortening of the overall path traveled by the cilia tip during this nontransporting phase of their beat pattern. This effect is observed to be independent of the type of stimulant (temperature or chemical), chemical (adenosine-triphosphate or acetylcholine), or concentration (1 μM-100 μM), indicating that this behavior may result from internal details of the cilium mechanical structure.
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