Nanoflowers may not impress your date, but researchers say these floral-shaped molecules—so tiny you'd need an electron microscope to see them—may have other uses. The objects (shown above) consist of a protein encased in copper phosphate "petals." As well as looking pretty, these petals perform two important functions. First, they stabilize the protein to prevent it from breaking down. Secondly, if the protein has catalytic properties—that is, if it speeds up other chemical reactions—encasing it in a nanoflower makes it a more effective catalyst. Nanoflower catalysts therefore work better and last longer than the bare proteins. Reporting this month in Nature Nanotechnology, the researchers calculated that, at present, they could enhance the speed and accuracy of the test for pheochromocytoma, a rare tumour of the adrenal gland. The test involves measuring the level of the hormone epinephrine in the patient's urine, and scientists could use nanoflowers to improve the catalyst used to detect the hormone. In the future, they suggest, nanoflowers might be used to detect toxic pollutants in the waste streams of factories more effectively than current techniques.
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