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Quantifying the mechanical forces produced by fluid flows within the ocean is critical to understanding the ocean’s environmental phenomena. Such forces may have been instrumental in the origin of life by driving a primitive form of self-replication through fragmentation. Among the intense sources of hydrodynamic shear encountered in the ocean are breaking waves and the bursting bubbles produced by such waves. On a microscopic scale, one expects the surface-tension–driven flows produced during bubble rupture to exhibit particularly high velocity gradients due to the small size scales and masses involved. However, little work has examined the strength of shear flow rates in commonly encountered ocean conditions. By using DNA nanotubes as a novel fluid flow sensor, we investigate the elongational rates generated in bursting films within aqueous bubble foams using both laboratory buffer and ocean water. To characterize the elongational rate distribution associated with a bursting bubble, we introduce the concept of a fragmentation volume and measure its form as a function of elongational flow rate. We find that substantial volumes experience surprisingly large flow rates: during the bursting of a bubble having an air volume of 10 mm3 , elongational rates at least as large as ⋵ = 1.0×108 s−1 are generated in a fragmentation volume of ∼ 2×10−6 μL. The determination of the elongational strain rate distribution is essential for assessing how effectively fluid motion within bursting bubbles at the ocean surface can shear microscopic particles and microorganisms, and could have driven the self-replication of a protobiont.

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This document was originally published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America by the National Academy of Sciences. Copyright restrictions may apply. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1424673112