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Anti-Freeze Molecule Behavior Identified, Analyzed

Ice cubes (Liz West/Flickr)The freezing of water and other substances is normally attributed to temperature, but chemistry researchers at New York University found other molecular processes taking place that influence freezing, with potential applications in food processing and other industries. The NYU team published its findings today online in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (paid subscription required).

“Nature has its own anti-freeze molecules,” says Michael Ward, chair of NYU’s chemistry department and senior author of the study. The research, conducted as part of NYU’s Materials Research Science and Engineering Center and funded by National Science Foundation, aimed to discover more details on the workings of those molecules.

The NYU researchers created artificial, simplified versions of protein molecules that, in nature, inhibit or delay freezing. These molecules were placed in microscopic droplets of water, and ice formation was monitored by video microscopy and X-ray analysis, which allowed the researchers to determine the key chemical features required to prevent ice crystals from forming.

The team then examined the molecules’ structural features to better explain these capabilities. The findings show the protein molecules act as regulators of ice crystal formation. Ice takes the form and structure of crystals, and the anti-freeze molecules link with ice surfaces in ways that inhibit the growth of these crystals, and thus slow or stop the freezing process.

“Our findings reveal how molecules ward off the freezing process and give new insights into how we might apply these principles elsewhere,” says co-author and associate chemistry professor Kent Kirshenbaum. The experiments show the molecules inhibit ice formation in two different ways. In some cases, the molecules reduce the temperature at which ice begins to form. In other cases, they slow down the accumulation of ice, once it begins to form.

“The growth and presence of ice can be damaging to everything from our vehicles to food to human tissue,” adds Kirshenbaum, “so learning how to control this process would be remarkably beneficial.”

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Photo: Liz West/Flickr

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