Chemists at CU Boulder have recently accomplished a feat that has eluded the scientific community for decades. Along with researchers from laboratories in Berkeley, California, and Shanghai, China, the team successfully developed the first synthetic polymer with a double-helical structure of significant length. In a paper published in Nature Chemistry, the researchers describe their work with dynamic covalent chemistry to create a polymer with the DNA-like structure that’s frequently seen in nature, but incredibly difficult to synthesize.

In the past, scientists have managed to create helical polymers made up of very short molecular strands known as helical oligomers, but this is the first time anybody has created long chains of atoms that are bonded in a double-helical formation with atomic precision. Another first came as a surprise to the research team: they realized some of their synthetic, polymeric material had solidified into single crystals. Each crystal was made up of mechanically locked double-helix polymers that were hydrogen bonded with neighboring pairs to form a continuous ordered crystalline structure.

Wei Zhang, the corresponding author of this study and a chemistry professor at CU, is excited about the advancements this discovery could precipitate in fields of chemistry, biology, medicine and more. “This technology could enable the customized design and synthesis of polymers that form long double helices, with possible control of their chirality [asymmetry], or spiral nature, similar to naturally occurring DNA and collagen,” he says. Particularly exciting applications could include the development of smart biomimetic materials—highly interactive materials that mimic natural biochemistry.

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