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Molecular ecosystems that interact and evolve

Scientists have developed a new technique to study the interaction between molecular systems and how these systems adapt to environmental changes. The potential uses are in several fields, such as molecular sensors or the study of the origin of life.

As it would happen in an ecosystem, the molecules react differently to different stimuli, exchange segments (with different colours) and, eventually, a kind of molecule prevails among the others. Above, artistic illustration of the work for the cover of the Chemistry European Journal.Life is the result of complex interactions between molecular systems. These interactions generate new properties in the molecular systems that don’t  exist in the molecules individually. The systems can adapt to external stimulus, which can be considered as a form of molecular evolution.

Due to the complexity of these systems, it is necessary to have very precise analytical techniques, like the one which has been developed by a scientific team at the CSIC and whose results have been published in the Chemistry European Journal.

Ignacio Alfonso, a CSIC scientist and co-author of the paper explains: “The level of complexity that can be generated and studied are limited by the capacity of analyzing and understanding the system as a whole. In this sense, the new area  of chemistry, the Systems Chemistry,  has appeared to create and study new mixtures of chemical species able to communicate between them and change”. Ignacio Alfonso is a researcher at the CSIC’s Instituto de Química Avanzada de Cataluña.

“In our laboratory, we have prepared mixtures of synthetic molecules, around twenty, which are derived from natural amino acids. These molecules interconvert  between others composing a molecular framework able to react to external stimuli”, adds.

Potential applications are molecular sensors, biocatalyzers or the study of the origin of life

The scientist illustrates these systems with a graphic example: a group of rings each one composed of segments with different colours. When an external change happens, the rings exchange their colored segments until, eventually, some rings are favored over the others. Similarly, as it would happen in an ecosystem, the molecules (the rings in the example) react differently to different stimuli, exchange segments and, eventually, a kind of molecule prevails among the others, which can be used a marker.  

Scientists have used an experimental, analytical technique and an advanced multivariable mathematical treatment to understand the behaviour of the molecules in front of different stimuli, either independently or even when the stimuli are applied together.  Exactly as it would happen with the biological systems.

The applications of this research are diverse. Applying different stimulus (salinity, pH of natural alkaloid) independently or together, the scientists have observed how the molecular systems adapt to the changes. Potential applications are molecular sensors (to detect environmental changes), biocatalyzers or the study of the origin of life.

Angel M. Valdivielso, Francesc Puig-Castellví, Joan Atcher, Jordi Solà, Romà Tauler and Ignacio Alfonso. Unraveling the multistimuli responses of a complex dynamic system of pseudopeptidic macrocycles. Chemistry European Journal.

Scientists have developed a new technique to study the interaction between molecular systems and how these systems adapt to environmental changes. The potential uses are in several fields, such as molecular sensors or the study of the origin of life.