The Ouroboros is an ancient symbol, which depicts a serpent or dragon curled in a circle, swallowing its own tail. Chemists at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) in California have now created a nano-tool, that they named after the curious beasty. Their ouroborand molecular switch looks kind of like the Ouroboros, in that its tail coils up and around into its cup-like head. Unlike the reptile, however, the molecule could be used to detect metals, toxins, and other pollutants in our environment.

The molecule’s default position is to be curled up, head-to-tail. When it encounters a metal ion, however, its middle section bends around that ion, springing the ouroborand open. If the metal ions are removed from its surroundings, it returns to its curled-up state. By analyzing the position of ouroborand switches in a sample of air, water, or soil, scientists could determine if any metallic impurities were present. Likewise, if the molecules had detected pollutants, they could also indicate if subsequent clean-up efforts had been successful.

The Ouroboros is best known as a symbol of eternity, and over the millennia has been frequently associated with alchemy. Given that an ouroborand could presumably detect gold, it’s a pretty nifty coincidence.

The TSRI’s ouroborand will be formally unveiled this month in a lecture at the University of Bonn’s Kekule Institute. It has already been featured in the April 19th issue of the journal Angewandte Chemie.