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article imageNucleation: From champagne bubbles to Alzheimer’s research

By Tim Sandle     Nov 24, 2016 in Science
A process called nucleation describes everything from the formation of champagne bubbles to the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. This physical and chemical process is being studied by researchers interested in disease development.
Nucleation processes refer to a transitional phase in matter, such as a liquid becoming a gas or a gas becoming a liquid. Here a thermodynamic phase takes place whereby the smallest units of the new structure form first, an essential step for the new phase to occur.
Understanding more about how nucleation occurs with different structures is key to understanding how different diseases progress, such as Alzheimer’s or diabetes. This is the recent subject of research conducted at University College London and the University of Cambridge. As well as disease development, the findings may also inform about advances with nanotechnology.
The research group have been studying the formation of protein filaments. Such a process is necessary for the division of cells and when this goes wrong diseases can result, such as Alzheimer's disease which is affected by protein filaments called amyloids.
The research has modeled various scenarios – where things work and where they do not use computers, in an attempt to understand the physical processes at play. The correct formation of proteins begins with unorganized clusters (called oligomers) and it is at this level when things can go wrong. Pinpointing these processes could lead to improvements to disease diagnoses or even the basis of treatments.
Explaining the significance further, Dr. Anđela Šarić, from Cambridge University told Controlled Environments magazine: "Perhaps an intuitive example of nucleation would be the way in which a quiet dinner party suddenly transforms into a dancing one; such a transition usually requires several people to start dancing at once, acting as a 'nucleus' around which the dancing party assembles.”
As to what this means, the analogy is extended. A small group of people dancing will probably be ignored. As more dancers join the occupied space becomes larger and more noticeable. This is the case with thermodynamics when a threshold is reached, termed the "critical nucleus."
The research findings are published in The Journal of Chemical Physics. The paper is called “Kinetics of spontaneous filament nucleation via oligomers: Insights from theory and simulation.”
More about Nanotechnology, nanostructures, nucleation, Alzheimer's disease
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