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Scientists create a ‘Star of David’ molecule — a step towards molecular chainmail

The Star of David molecule comprises two entwined triangular structures. (David Leigh/Manchester University)

Scientists at the University of Manchester have created a new molecular shape -- a group of interlocking rings, twisted into a six-pointed "Star of David." But they weren't inspired by the shape's religious symbolism: The molecule, reported Sunday in Nature Chemistry, is the most complex molecular shape ever created in the lab.

Interwoven molecules like this one could be used to create some pretty cool new materials. "When you look at viruses, some of their shells have these coatings made of a sort of chainmail of protein, and it's very tough but very light," lead researcher and professor of chemistry David Leigh said. "So the thinking is that if you could do the same thing with a man-made molecule, you could get those same benefits."

But learning how to make interweaving molecules is a challenge, Leigh said -- one that chemists have been working at for over 25 years. The trick his team used was to let the molecules assemble themselves.

"Most have tried to take linear molecules and twist them around each other," Leigh said, "But we choose our building blocks very carefully."

The shape is made of two molecular triangles that interweave with each other three times, creating a star with a perimeter of only 114 atoms. Instead of having to bend the triangles into place, the chemists chose triangles that would interweave on their own as they formed. "Nature does the same thing to assemble the double helix in DNA," Leigh said.

But a single star is not a suit of armor, so Leigh and his team will continue to work on more complex molecular shapes -- and eventually, they'll try to form the chains and sheets of interlocking shapes that will form our modern-day chainmail.