New nano-tool synthesized

April 13, 2010

Two chemists at The Scripps Research Institute have synthesized a new nano-scale scientific tool -- a tiny molecular switch that turns itself on or off as it detects metallic ions in its immediate surroundings.

Featured on the cover of the April 19, 2010 issue of the International Edition of the journal , this molecule may be useful as a laboratory tool for controlling tiny reactions in the test tube, and it has potential to be developed as the basis of a new technology that could sensitively detect metals, toxins, and other pollutants in the air, water, or soil.

The molecule is named "ouroborand" after the mythical Ouroboros ("tail-eater" in Greek) — a lizard-like creature that swallows itself head-to-tail. In mythology, the cyclic Ouroboros is always depicted with its tail in its mouth and this is usually taken as a symbol of eternity. In the Scripps Research laboratory where it was invented, the ouroborand molecule alternatively swallows or coughs out its tail—like a switch that goes on or off as it senses metals.

This switching is possible because the molecule has a cup-like head at one end and a tail at the other. The tail can curl around and plug the cup — just like the lizard swallowing its own tail.

"When no metals are present, the molecule's tail is held within its cavity at the other end," says Julius Rebek, Ph.D., who is the director of the Skaggs Institute for at Scripps Research.

In the presence of zinc or other metal ions, the part of the molecule that links the head and the tail curls around the and pulls the head and the tail apart, springing the molecule open, says Rebek. Remove the metal, and the tail will move again to plug the other end of the molecule.

When Rebek and his postdoctoral fellow Fabien Durola synthesized the molecule and decided to name it ouroborand, they made a return of sorts to the dreams of chemists and alchemists long ago. In Medieval times and through the Renaissance, the mythical Ouroboros was a symbol used in alchemy, the ancient practice that was a forerunner to modern chemistry.

The spirit of this symbol later briefly carried over into modern chemistry as well. More than a century ago, the famous German chemist August Kekule had a dream about a serpent with its tail in its mouth, and this inspired him to propose the correct, circular structure of the compound benzene, a commonly used industrial solvent.

Explore further: More flight than fancy?

More information: The Angewandte Chemie article, "The Ouroborand: A Cavitand with a Coordination-Driven Switching Device" is authored by Fabien Durola and Julius Rebek and is available online: DOI:10.1002/anie.200906753

Related Stories

More flight than fancy?

April 5, 2007

Scientists from the universities of Exeter and Cambridge have turned a textbook example of sexual selection on its head and shown that females may be more astute at choosing a mate than previously thought.

Sperm size isn't everything

November 25, 2008

Contrary to common scientific belief, the length of a sperm's tail does not always determine how fast it can swim. Research published in the open access journal BMC Evolutionary Biology has shown that in the counter-intuitive ...

Figuring out the heads or tails decision in regeneration

September 14, 2009

Amputations trigger a molecular response that determines if a head or tail will be regrown in planaria, a flatworm commonly studied for its regenerative capabilities. Until now, no molecular connection between wounding and ...

Comet McNaught - A First Light Present for STEREO

January 19, 2007

This image of Comet McNaught comes from the Heliospheric Imager on one of the STEREO spacecraft, taken Jan. 11, 2007. To the right is the comet nucleus, so bright it saturates the detector creating a bright vertical band ...

Detached gecko tails dance to their own tune

September 9, 2009

Geckos and other lizards have long been known for their incredible ability to shed their tails as a decoy for predators, but little is known about the movements and what controls the tail once it separates from the lizard's ...

Recommended for you

New aspect of atom mimicry for nanotechnology applications

December 2, 2016

In nanotechnology control is key. Control over the arrangements and distances between nanoparticles can allow tailored interaction strengths so that properties can be harnessed in devices such as plasmonic sensors. Now researchers ...

Engineers create prototype chip just three atoms thick

November 29, 2016

For more than 50 years, silicon chipmakers have devised inventive ways to switch electricity on and off, generating the digital ones and zeroes that encode words, pictures, movies and other forms of data.

Nanotechnology a 'green' approach to treating liver cancer

November 29, 2016

According to the American Cancer Society, more than 700,000 new cases of liver cancer are diagnosed worldwide each year. Currently, the only cure for the disease is to surgically remove the cancerous part of the liver or ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.