Chemical weapons like sarin can be devastating. They attack the nervous system by interfering with electric signals in the brain — a change that usually prevents a victim from breathing. To stop their effect, researchers have tried to make synthetic compounds that can break down nerve agents. Now, a lab-made compound appears to be able to do just that, in a matter of minutes.
it broke down half the nerve agent in three minutes
Nature came up with ways to break down chemical weapons long ago. Natural enzymes called phosphotriesterases can deactivate pesticides and certain types of nerve gas in milliseconds, Science reports. Unfortunately, these enzymes aren’t very stable; they degrade easily. So researchers decided to improve upon nature's design. By copying the mechanism that allows these enzymes to deactivate nerve agents in a more stable compound, they were able to come up with a chemical — called NU-1000 — that can survive inhospitable environments, according to a study published in Nature Materials yesterday.
The researchers tested their synthetic creation on a pesticide that’s chemically related to nerve agents. They found that NU-1000 was able to break down half of the pesticide in about 15 minutes — a timeframe that handily surpasses past results obtained from synthetic compounds. Then, they sent their compound to a US Army facility, so it could go up against the nerve agent GD — a chemical weapon that's actually more toxic than sarin. Scientists found that NU-1000 was able to get break down half of the nerve agent in about three minutes, or 80 times faster than similar synthetic compounds.
the compound is still too slow to use during an attack
NU-1000 is "extraordinarily effective," the researchers write. But it isn’t really good enough. Right now, the compound is too slow to use during an attack, or in gas masks. Thankfully, the researchers already know that achieving a better result is possible. After all, the natural enzymes that they're trying to copy are up to 100,000 times faster.