From H. Turlier et al. Nature Physics, 12, 513-519 (2016)
Red blood cells, or erythrocytes, are seen to flicker under optical microscopy, a phenomenon initially described as thermal fluctuations of the cell membrane. But recent studies have suggested the involvement of non-equilibrium processes, without definitively ruling out equilibrium interpretations. Using active and passive microrheology to directly compare the membrane response and fluctuations on single erythrocytes, we report here a violation of the fluctuationâ€“dissipation relation, which is a direct demonstration of the non-equilibrium nature of flickering. With an analytical model of the composite erythrocyte membrane and realistic stochastic simulations, we show that several molecular mechanisms may explain the active fluctuations, and we predict their kinetics. We demonstrate that tangential metabolic activity in the network formed by spectrin, a cytoskeletal protein, can generate curvature-mediated active membrane motions. We also show that other active membrane processes represented by direct normal force dipoles may explain the observed membrane activity. Our findings provide solid experimental and theoretical frameworks for future investigations of the origin and function of active motion in cells.