Predicting First Traversal Times for Virions and Nanoparticles in Mucus with Slowed Diffusion
Particle-tracking experiments focusing on virions or nanoparticles in mucus have measured mean-square displacements and reported diffusion coefficients that are orders of magnitude smaller than the diffusion coefficients of such particles in water. Accurate description of this subdiffusion is important to properly estimate the likelihood of virions traversing the mucus boundary layer and infecting cells in the epithelium. However, there are several candidate models for diffusion that can fit experimental measurements of mean-square displacements. We show that these models yield very different estimates for the time taken for subdiffusive virions to traverse through a mucus layer. We explain why fits of subdiffusive mean-square displacements to standard diffusion models may be misleading. Relevant to human immunodeficiency virus infection, using computational methods for fractional subdiffusion, we show that subdiffusion in normal acidic mucus provides a more effective barrier against infection than previously thought. By contrast, the neutralization of the mucus by alkaline semen, after sexual intercourse, allows virions to cross the mucus layer and reach the epithelium in a short timeframe. The computed barrier protection from fractional subdiffusion is some orders of magnitude greater than that derived by fitting standard models of diffusion to subdiffusive data.