The theory of 11-dimensional supergravity contains a higher gauge field – the supergravity C-field – that naturally couples to higher electrically charged 2-branes (membranes). By a process called double dimensional reduction, these are related to superstrings (Bergshoeff-Sezgin-Townsend 87).

When in (Witten95) it was argued that the 10-dimensional target space theories of the five types of superstring theories are all limiting cases of one single 11-dimensional target space theory that extends 11-dimensional supergravity (M-theory), it was natural to guess that this supergravity membrane accordingly yields a 3-dimensional sigma-model that reduces in limiting cases to the string sigma-models.

But there were two aspects that make this idea a little subtle, even at this vague level: first, there is no good theory of the quantization of the membrane sigma-model, as opposed to the well understood quantum string. Secondly, Secondly, that hypothetical “theory extending 11-dimensional supergravity” (“M-theory”) has remained elusive enough that it is not clear in which sense the membrane would relate to it in a way analogous to how the string relates to its target space theories (which is fairly well understood).

Later, with the BFSS matrix model some people gained more confidence in the idea, by identifying the corresponding degrees of freedom in a special case (Nicolai-Helling 98, Dasgupta-Nicolai-Plefka 02). See also at membrane matrix model.

In a more modern perspective, the M2-brane worldvolume theory appears under AdS4-CFT3 duality as a holographic dual of a 4-dimensional Chern-Simons theory. Indeed, its Green-Schwarz action functional is entirely controled by the super-Lie algebra 4-cocycle of super Minkowski spacetime given by the brane scan. This exhibits the M2-brane worldvolume theory as a 3-dimensional higher WZW model?.


There are two different incarnations of the M2-brane. On the one hand it is defined as a Green-Schwarz sigma model with target space a spacetime that is a solution to the equations of motion of 11-dimensional supergravity. One would call this the “fundamental” M2 in analogy with the “fundamental string”, if only there were an “M2-perturbation series” which however is essentially ruled out.

On the other hand the M2 also appears as a black brane, hence as a solution to the equations of motion of 11-dimensional supergravity with singularity that looks from outside like a charged 2 dimensional object.

As a Green-Schwarz sigma model

See at Green-Schwarz sigma model and brane scan.

As a black brane

As a black brane solution to the equations of motion of 11-dimensional supergravity the M2 is the spacetime 2,1×( 8{0})\mathbb{R}^{2,1} \times (\mathbb{R}^8-\{0\}) with pseudo-Riemannian metric being

g=H 2/3g 2,1+H 1/3g 8{0} g = H^{-2/3} g_{\mathbb{R}^{2,1}} + H^{1/3}g_{\mathbb{R}^8-\{0\}}


H=α+βr 6 H = \alpha + \frac{\beta}{r^6}

for (α,β) 2{(0,0)}(\alpha,\beta) \in \mathbb{R}^2 - \{(0,0)\};

and the field strength of the supergravity C-field is

F=dvol 2,1dH 1. F = d vol_{\mathbb{R}^{2,1}} \wedge \mathbf{d} H^{-1} \,.

For αβ0\alpha \beta \neq 0 this is a 1/2 BPS state of 11d sugra.

The near horizon geometry of this spacetime is the Freund-Rubin compactification AdS4×\timesS7. For more on this see at AdS-CFT.

1/2 BPS black branes in supergravity: D-branes, F1-brane, NS5-brane, M2-brane, M5-brane

(table taken from Blumenhagen-Lüst-Theisen “Basic concepts of string theory”)

More generally, one may classify those solutions of 11-dimensional supergravity of the form AdS 4×X 7AdS_4 \times X_7 for some closed manifold X 7X_7, that are at least 1/2 BPS states. One finds (Medeiros-Figueroa 10) that all these are of the form AdS 4×S 7/G ADEAdS_4 \times S^7/G_{ADE}, where S 7/G ADES^7 / G_{ADE} is an orbifold of the 7-sphere by a finite subgroup G ADESU(2)G_{ADE} \hookrightarrow SU(2) of the special unitary group, i.e. a finite group in the ADE-classification

ADE classification

Dynkin diagramPlatonic solidfinite subgroup of SO(3)SO(3)finite subgroup of SU(2)SU(2)simple Lie group
A lA_lcyclic groupcyclic groupspecial unitary group
D lD_ldihedron/hosohedrondihedral groupbinary dihedral groupspecial orthogonal group
E 6E_6tetrahedrontetrahedral groupbinary tetrahedral groupE6
E 7E_7cube/octahedronoctahedral groupbinary octahedral groupE7
E 8E_8dodecahedron/icosahedronicosahedral groupbinary icosahedral groupE8

Here for 5𝒩8 5 \leq \mathcal{N} \leq 8-supersymmetry then the action of G ADEG_{ADE} on S 7S^7 is via the canonical action of SU(2)SU(2) as in the quaternionic Hopf fibration (Medeiros-Figueroa 10), while for 𝒩=4\mathcal{N} = 4 then there is an extra twist to the action (MFFGME 09):

AdS 4×S 7/G ADEAdS_4 \times S^7/G_{ADE} BPS stateDynkin labelG ADESU(2)G_{ADE} \subset SU(2)AdS-CFT-dual worldvolume theory
𝒩=8\mathcal{N} = 8A 1A_1/2\mathbb{Z}/2 (group of order 2)BLG model
𝒩=6\mathcal{N} = 6A n1A_{n-1}/n\mathbb{Z}/n (cyclic group)ABJM model
𝒩=5\mathcal{N} = 5D n+2D_{n+2}2𝒟 2n2 \mathcal{D}_{2n} (binary dihedral group)?
𝒩=5\mathcal{N} = 5E 6E_62𝒯2 \mathcal{T} (binary tetrahedral group)?
𝒩=5\mathcal{N} = 5E 7E_72𝒪2 \mathcal{O} (binary octahedral group)?
𝒩=5\mathcal{N} = 5E 8E_822 \mathcal{I} (binary icosahedral group)?


M2-branes at ADE-orbifold singularities – BLG and ABJM

The worldvolume theory of M2-branes sitting at ADE singularities is supposed to be described by ABJM theory and, for the special case of SU(2)SU(2) gauge group, by the BLG model. See also at gauge enhancement.

AdS4-CFT3 duality

Under AdS-CFT duality the M2-brane is given by AdS4-CFT3 duality. (Maldacena 97, section 3.2, Klebanov-Torri 10).

Table of branes appearing in supergravity/string theory (for classification see at brane scan).

branein supergravitycharged under gauge fieldhas worldvolume theory
black branesupergravityhigher gauge fieldSCFT
D-branetype IIRR-fieldsuper Yang-Mills theory
(D=2n)(D = 2n)type IIA\,\,
D0-brane\,\,BFSS matrix model
D4-brane\,\,D=5 super Yang-Mills theory with Khovanov homology observables
D6-brane\,\,D=7 super Yang-Mills theory
(D=2n+1)(D = 2n+1)type IIB\,\,
D1-brane\,\,2d CFT with BH entropy
D3-brane\,\,N=4 D=4 super Yang-Mills theory
(D25-brane)(bosonic string theory)
NS-branetype I, II, heteroticcircle n-connection\,
string\,B2-field2d SCFT
NS5-brane\,B6-fieldlittle string theory
D-brane for topological string\,
M-brane11D SuGra/M-theorycircle n-connection\,
M2-brane\,C3-fieldABJM theory, BLG model
M5-brane\,C6-field6d (2,0)-superconformal QFT
M9-brane/O9-planeheterotic string theory
topological M2-branetopological M-theoryC3-field on G2-manifold
topological M5-brane\,C6-field on G2-manifold
solitons on M5-brane6d (2,0)-superconformal QFT
self-dual stringself-dual B-field
3-brane in 6d



The Green-Schwarz sigma-model-type formulation of the supermembrane (as in the brane scan) first appears in

and its quantization was first explored in

The interpretation of the membrane as as an object related to string theory, hence as the M2-brane was proposed in

around the time when M-theory became accepted due to

The interpretation of the M2-brane worldvolume theory as related to the BFSS matrix model of D0-branes is discussed in some detail in

  • Hermann Nicolai, Robert Helling, Supermembranes and M(atrix) Theory, Lectures given by H. Nicolai at the Trieste Spring School on Non-Perturbative Aspects of String Theory and Supersymmetric Gauge Theories, 23 - 31 March 1998 (arXiv:hep-th/9809103)

  • Arundhati Dasgupta, Hermann Nicolai, Jan Plefka, An Introduction to the Quantum Supermembrane, Grav.Cosmol.8:1,2002; Rev.Mex.Fis.49S1:1-10, 2003 (arXiv:hep-th/0201182)

Meanwhile AdS-CFT duality was recognized in

where a dual description of the worldvolume theory of M2-brane appears in seciton 3.2. More on this is in

An account of the history as of 1999 is in

A detailed discussion of this black brane-realization of the M2 and its relation to AdS-CFT is in

The generalization of this to 1/2\geq 1/2 BPS sugra solutions of the form AdS 4×X 8AdS_4 \times X_8 is due to

Discussion of the history includes

Other recent developments are discussed in

Formulations of multiple M2-branes on top of each other are given by the BLG model and the ABJM model. See there for more pointers. The relation of these to the above is discussed in section 3 of

Discusson of boundary conditions in the ABJM model (for M2-branes ending on M5-branes) is in

A kind of double dimensional reduction of the ABJM model to something related to type II superstrings and D1-branes is discussed in

Discussion of the ABJM model in Horava-Witten theory and reducing to heterotic strings is in

Discussion of general phenomena of M-branes in higher geometry and generalized cohomology is in

Discussion from the point of view of Green-Schwarz action functional-∞-Wess-Zumino-Witten theory is in


The role of and the relation to duality in string theory of the membrane is discussed in the following articles.

Relation to T-duality is discussed in:

  • J.G. Russo, T-duality in M-theory and supermembranes (arXiv:hep-th/9701188)

  • M.P. Garcia del Moral, J.M. Pena, A. Restuccia, T-duality Invariance of the Supermembrane (arXiv:1211.2434)

Relation to U-duality is discussed in:

Revised on September 27, 2016 15:12:00 by Urs Schreiber (