An international team that included Rice University materials scientist Edwin Thomas pried a new, fundamental detail from its bottom-up creation of several block copolymers, synthetic materials that naturally assemble themselves from small building blocks.

They found the left or right chirality established by the smallest building blocks (monomers) of the polymer replicated itself as the microscopic material came together to form larger scale spiraling structures akin to those commonly found in nature -- for instance, in helical DNA -- and could enable the creation of materials with unique properties.

"From a properties standpoint, chirality is pretty big for optics," Thomas said.

The discovery led by the Rice professor's experimental colleagues in Taiwan is the focus of a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Thomas and his team have spent years developing expertise in block copolymers, a class of metamaterials that can assemble themselves into many distinct patterns, including alternating layers.

Thomas noted the importance of chirality in nature, especially in drug design, where a left-handed molecule can be a savior while the same molecule, but right-handed, is toxic.

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