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September 17th, 2008
French scientists have used magnetic colloids to make self-assembling, helical structures reminiscent of DNA. Similar methods could be used to make tiny, self-propelling objects and colloidal models that mimic the assembly of complex, naturally occurring molecules.
The helices are formed from chains of dumbbell-shaped silica spheres, which are larger at one end than at the other and encircled by a magnetic 'waist' of iron oxide. In a magnetic field, the waists are attracted to each other, but as a new dumbbell approaches the growing chain it rotates to align its waist with the field. Because the dumbbells are asymmetric, the chain begins to twist into a helix.
Jerome Bibette, who led the team at the Industrial Physics and Chemistry Higher Educational Institution in Paris, says the effect resembles the way that subunits of a polymer approach each other in order to avoid steric hindrance. 'You cannot escape from the direction of polymerisation. It's imposed by nature. That's the game of chemistry and we have recreated this game with just silica spheres and magnetic waists.'
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