Illustration of a catenane, a molecule composed of interlocked, nano-sized rings

Hong Kong chemists develop a “chameleon” molecule

9 July 2024

Researchers from the University of Hong Kong have successfully synthesised a new molecular chain—a catenane—that exhibits remarkable efficiency in binding both positive and negative ions. Catenanes are composed of interlocked, nano-sized rings and are promising candidates for developing molecular switches and machines.

The study, led by Dr Ho Yu Au-Yeung, and with Yueliang Yao as first author, has been published in Nature Communications.

The team’s approach involves creating a catenane that can selectively switch between different binding modes. This flexibility is akin to a "chameleon" effect, allowing the molecule to adapt its shape and function based on the type of ion it encounters. The adaptability is achieved using interlocked macrocycles, which can reorient themselves by 180 degrees to favour specific interactions with either copper ions or sulphate ions.

The team’s innovative approach to managing ion binding at the molecular level has the potential to support progress in areas such as environmental monitoring and biomedical diagnostics.

This work is supported by the CAS-Croucher Funding Scheme for Joint Laboratories, the Collaborative Research Fund and General Research Fund from the Research Grants Councils of Hong Kong.

Ho Yu Au-Yeung has won the following Croucher awards: an Innovation Award in 2016, a Fellowship in 2010, and a Scholarship in 2006.