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Algae bloom in canal

Algae-choked waterways are often treated with acrolein, which is produced by degradation of a newly concocted molecule. Credit: Pedro Portal/Miami Herald/TNS/Getty

Chemistry

This polymer carries the seeds of its own destruction

A molecule’s partial dissolution generates acid, leading to runaway degradation.

A new type of self-destructing polymer could be formed into soluble capsules for drug delivery or temporary scaffolds for 3D printing.

Polymers consist of repeated chemical subunits held together by chemical bonds. Various methods can be used to break these bonds, but many such methods are slow or require relatively large amounts of a ‘triggering agent’ to start the degradation.

Steven Zimmerman and his colleagues at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign cooked up polymers that start to fall apart when placed in a slightly acidic environment. As a polymer molecule dissolves, it produces acid, which in turn breaks apart more of the remaining molecule, until it is no more. As a result, a molecule’s decay rate becomes exponentially faster as its degradation progresses. Large amounts of a chemical trigger are unnecessary, because a molecule’s disintegration ultimately fuels itself.

Similar polymers could be used to make consumer products that degrade quickly. One polymer variety that the team developed releases acrolein, which is used to fight the algae and bacteria that foul irrigation canals.

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Pulsar wind nebula illustration

Curving purple lines in this artist’s impression represent the magnetic field of a neutron star (white sphere) left over from a brilliant supernova. Credit: Salvatore Orlando/INAF-Osservatorio Astronomico di Palermo

Astronomy and astrophysics

X-rays expose a clue to the mystery of the missing neutron star

Astronomers might have spotted the long-sought debris of a famous stellar explosion.
A bone fragment next to a dime

A bone fragment excavated in Southeast Alaska belonged to one of the earliest known domestic dogs in the Americas. Credit: Douglas Levere/University at Buffalo

Genomics

An ancient Alaskan dog’s DNA hints at an epic shared journey

To scientists’ surprise, a 10,000-year-old bone found in an Alaskan cave belonged to a domestic dog — one of the earliest known from the Americas.
Emissions billow from smokestacks at a coal-fired power plant as the sun sets, India.

Black carbon emitted by power plants and other sources in Asia wafts to the Arctic, where the pollution accelerates the melting of ice and snow. Credit: Kuni Takahashi/Bloomberg/Getty

Atmospheric science

Soot from Asia travels express on a highway to the high Arctic

Black carbon from fuel combustion in South Asia bolsters the effects of climate change on northern ice and snow.
Prevotella copri bacteria, computer illustration

The gut bacterium Prevotella copri (artist’s impression) has been linked to a reduction in the health benefits of a diet that skimps on red meat in favour of fish and vegetables. Credit: Kateryna Kon/Science Photo Library

Microbiology

Trying a Mediterranean diet? Gut microbes might sway the outcome

The composition of a person’s microbiome could influence the health effects of swapping steak for vegetables and olive oil.
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