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New York University chemists have discovered how to make molecules with
a twist—the molecules fold in to twisted helical shapes that can
accelerate selected chemical reactions. The research, reported in the
latest issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
(PNAS), could yield valuable methods for making pharmaceuticals and
other chemicals that require precise assembly of complex structures.
The NYU team performs studies in "biomimetic chemistry." This
research pursues synthetic molecules with structures and functions
resembling molecules found in nature. Many biological molecules, such
as proteins and DNA, can fold themselves into ordered helices and
bundles. Within the past decade, scientists have successfully
synthesized molecular chains that can also fold into various shapes.
Although these "foldamers" resemble biochemical forms, finding mimics
of biochemical functions has been more elusive. Now, the NYU chemists
are able to create folded molecules that can perform a complex
function. In this case, the new molecules are catalysts—substances that
speed up the rate of chemical transformations.
The PNAS paper describes how to embed a catalytic chemical group
within a larger twisted architecture. The researchers' hypothesis was
that the arrangement of the surrounding twist would help determine how
contacts could be made between the catalyst and surrounding molecules.
To test the functionality of their foldamer, they combined it with a
pair of mirror-image molecules—those with identical composition, but
whose atoms are distributed in opposing spatial locations, much like
left-handed and right-handed gloves—to determine if it could correctly
interact with one of the pair in order to form a new chemical. The
ability of the foldamer to do so was evidence of its precision.
"Our molecules are particularly interesting in that they are
'selective'—they will recognize one type of target molecule and
catalyze its chemical conversion," explained NYU Chemistry Professor
Kent Kirshenbaum, one of the study's authors. "This is especially
important for making complex chemical structures, so we think this may
be eventually useful for the synthesis of new drugs."
"Molecules used in pharmaceuticals have to be manufactured in an
extremely specific manner," he added. "The difference in resulting
chemicals between two mirror-image molecules could be enormous, so it
is crucial that a catalyst correctly make a distinction between similar
structures. Once we learn the rules to connect different molecular
folds to desired functions, there should be many new tricks and new
tasks we can teach our molecules to perform."
The study's other authors were NYU Chemistry Professors Michael
Ward, who is also the department's chair, and post-doctoral fellow
Galia Maayan. All three are also part of NYU's Molecular Design
Institute. For more on NYU's Molecular Design Institute, go to: http://www.nyu.edu/fas/dept/chemistry/mdi/
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