Scientists explore water's surprising role in the science of hydration solids

Columbia University researchers have discovered a new class of matter called hydration solids, challenging the fundamental understanding of biological materials.
Abdul-Rahman Oladimeji Bello
Solid and liquid state of matter
Representational image of water

iStock/Tamer Dagas 

Scientists at Columbia University have unveiled groundbreaking research that challenges the long-held belief that the properties of solid materials are solely determined by their constituent atoms and molecules.

In a recent paper published in Nature, the researchers propose a new class of matter called "hydration solids" that demonstrates how water, permeating various biological materials, plays a central role in defining their character and properties.

Traditionally, the structural rigidity of solid materials such as wood, bacteria, and fungi has been attributed to the bonds between their molecular building blocks. However, this new study reveals that the fluid permeating their pores, in the form of water, truly gives these materials their strength.

Lead author Ozgur Sahin, a Biological Sciences and Physics professor, describes this discovery as a unifying scientific revelation. The team found that the hydration force, which pushes the molecules of biological matter apart, is the key determinant of their characteristics, including hardness and softness. This unexpected insight resolves longstanding mysteries and opens doors to predicting and understanding exciting phenomena in materials.

Scientists explore water's surprising role in the science of hydration solids
Solid condensation

The significance of water in biological matter

The significance of water in shaping biological matter has long been recognized, with examples like wooden doors expanding during humid spells. However, this research reveals that ambient water is even more integral to the character of natural materials like fungi, plants, and wood than previously believed.

What makes this research even more remarkable is the simplicity of the mathematical formulas that the team developed to describe the behavior of organic materials in relation to water. Previous models relied on complex computer simulations, but the newfound simplicity suggests a profound breakthrough. Even G. Harrellson, one of the study's authors, notes that the answers became simpler as they delved deeper into the project, a rarity in scientific endeavors.

The origins of this groundbreaking discovery lie in Professor Sahin's study of spores, dormant bacterial cells known for their remarkable expansion and contraction in response to water.

As Sahin and his team investigated the mysteries surrounding spore behavior, they began to suspect that the hydration force played a crucial role in water movement within spores. After conducting further experiments, they realized that hydration forces were the missing link, providing a comprehensive explanation for the observed phenomena.

The implications of this research extend far beyond the laboratory. Hygroscopic biological materials, which allow water to pass through them, constitute a significant portion of the living world, ranging from wood, bamboo, and cotton to pine cones, wool, and hair.

Moreover, the outer skin of animals and bacterial and fungal spores are also influenced by hydration forces. By introducing the term "hydration solids," the researchers offer a new perspective on these materials, emphasizing the importance of water in their composition.

The equations derived from this study enable researchers to predict the mechanical properties of materials based on fundamental physics principles. Previously, such predictions were mainly limited to gases using the general gas equation. This breakthrough allows scientists to view trees and plants as water towers, with sugars and proteins held in place by the permeating water, reshaping our understanding of the natural world.

In the words of Professor Sahin, "It's really water's world." This research challenges conventional wisdom and opens up exciting possibilities for diverse fields such as material science, biology, and engineering.

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