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Using some plain old rubber strips, scientists have created a whole new shape -- a hemihelix, a long spiral that switches twisting directions over its length. The shape, described in the journal PLOS One, is rarely seen in nature – and could potentially prove useful for manipulating light on tiny scales.

In a standard helix the spiral coils up and up in the same direction, like a stretched-out slinky, and it’s a fairly common shape in the natural world, most notably in the double helix of DNA. But hemihelices? Not so much. They’re found infrequently in nature – Charles Darwin noted this strange phenomenon in the late 1800s, and scientists have recently described them in the climbing tendrils of cucumber vines.

Their odd structure could potentially make very useful springs, said study coauthor Katia Bertoldi, a materials scientist at Harvard University.

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