Homochirality describes a geometric property of some materials that are composed of chiral units. Chiral bodies are objects which are non-superposable on their mirror images. For example, left and right hands are chiral. A substance is said to be homochiral if all the constituent units are molecules of the same chiral form (enantiomer).

In biology, homochirality is a common property of amino acids and sugars. The origin of this phenomenon is not clearly understood. It is unclear if homochirality has a purpose; however it appears to be a form of information storage. [1] One suggestion is that it reduces entropy barriers in the formation of large organized molecules.[2] It has been experimentally verified that amino acids form large aggregates in larger abundance from enantiopure substrates than from racemic ones.

Homochirality is said to evolve in three distinct steps: mirror-symmetry breaking creates a minute enantiomeric imbalance and is key to homochirality, chiral amplification is a process of enantiomeric enrichment and chiral transmission allows the transfer of chirality of one set of molecules to another.

It is also entirely possible that homochirality is simply a result of the natural autoamplification process of life —that either the formation of life as preferring one chirality or the other was a chance rare event which happened to occur with the chiralities we observe, or that all chiralities of life emerged rapidly but due to catastrophic events and strong competition, the other unobserved chiral preferences were wiped out by the preponderance and metabolic, enantiomeric enrichment from the 'winning' chirality choices . The emergence of chirality consensus as a natural autoamplification process has been associated with the 2nd law of thermodynamics.[3]

Mirror-symmetry breaking

Known mechanisms for the production of non-racemic mixtures from racemic starting materials include: asymmetric physical laws, such as the electroweak interaction; asymmetric environments, such as those caused by circularly polarized light, quartz crystals, or the Earth's rotation; and statistical fluctuations during racemic synthesis.[4] Once established, chirality would be selected for.[5] A small enantiomeric excess can be amplified into a large one by asymmetric autocatalysis, such as in the Soai reaction.[6] In asymmetric autocatalysis, the catalyst is a chiral molecule, which means that a chiral molecule is catalysing its own production. An initial enantiomeric excess, such as can be produced by polarized light, then allows the more abundant enantiomer to outcompete the other.[7]

One supposition is that the discovery of an enantiomeric imbalance in molecules in the Murchison meteorite supports an extraterrestrial origin of homochirality: there is evidence for the existence of circularly polarized light originating from Mie scattering on aligned interstellar dust particles which may trigger the formation of an enantiomeric excess within chiral material in space.[8] Another speculation (the Vester-Ulbricht hypothesis) suggests that fundamental chirality of physical processes such as that of the beta decay (see Parity violation) leads to slightly different half-lives of biologically relevant molecules. Homochirality may also result from spontaneous absolute asymmetric synthesis.[9][10]

Chiral amplification

Laboratory experiments exist demonstrating how in certain autocatalytic reaction systems the presence of a small amount of reaction product with enantiomeric excess at the start of the reaction can result in a much larger enantiomeric excess at the end of the reaction. In the Soai reaction,[11] pyrimidine-5-carbaldehyde (Scheme 1) is alkylated by diisopropylzinc to the corresponding pyrimidyl alcohol. Because the initial reaction product is also an effective catalyst the reaction is autocatalytic. The presence of just 0.2 equivalent of the alcohol S-enantiomer at the start of the reaction is sufficient to amplify the enantiomeric excess to 93%.

Another study[12] concerns the proline catalyzed aminoxylation of propionaldehyde by nitrosobenzene (scheme 2). In this system too the presence of enantioenriched catalyst drives the reaction towards one of the two possible optical isomers.

Serine octamer clusters[13][14] are also contenders. These clusters of 8 serine molecules appear in mass spectrometry with an unusual homochiral preference, however there is no evidence that such clusters exist under non-ionizing conditions and amino acid phase behavior is far more prebiotically relevant.[15] The recent observation that partial sublimation of a 10% enantioenriched sample of leucine results in up to 82% enrichment in the sublimate shows that enantioenrichment of amino acids could occur in space.[16] Partial sublimation processes can take place on the surface of meteors where large variations in temperature exist. This finding may have consequences for the development of the Mars Organic Detector scheduled for launch in 2013 which aims to recover trace amounts of amino acids from the Mars surface exactly by a sublimation technique.

A high asymmetric amplification of the enantiomeric excess of sugars are also present in the amino acid catalyzed asymmetric formation of carbohydrates[17]

One classic study involves an experiment that takes place in the laboratory.[18] When sodium chlorate is allowed to crystallize from water and the collected crystals examined in a polarimeter, each crystal turns out to be chiral and either the L form or the D form. In an ordinary experiment the amount of L crystals collected equals the amount of D crystals (corrected for statistical effects). However, when the sodium chlorate solution is stirred during the crystallization process the crystals are either exclusively L or exclusively D. In 32 consecutive crystallization experiments 14 experiments deliver D-crystals and 18 others L-crystals. The explanation for this symmetry breaking is unclear but is related to autocatalysis taking place in the nucleation process.

In a related experiment, a crystal suspension of a racemic amino acid derivative continuously stirred, results in a 100% crystal phase of one of the enantiomers because the enantiomeric pair is able to equilibrate in solution (compare with dynamic kinetic resolution)[19]

Chiral transmission

Many strategies in asymmetric synthesis are built on chiral transmission. Especially important is the so-called organocatalysis of organic reactions by proline for example in Mannich reactions.

Optical resolution in racemic amino acids

There exists no theory elucidating correlations among L-amino acids. If one takes, for example, alanine, which has a small methyl group, and phenylalanine, which has a larger benzyl group, a simple question is in what aspect, L-alanine resembles L-phenylalanine more than D-phenylalanine, and what kind of mechanism causes the selection of all L-amino acids. Because it might be possible that alanine was L and phenylalanine was D.

It was reported[20] in 2004 that excess racemic D,L-asparagine (Asn), which spontaneously forms crystals of either isomer during recrystallization, induces asymmetric resolution of a co-existing racemic amino acid such as arginine (Arg), aspartic acid (Asp), glutamine (Gln), histidine (His), leucine (Leu), methionine (Met), phenylalanine (Phe), serine (Ser), valine (Val), tyrosine (Tyr), and tryptophan (Trp). The enantiomeric excess {ee=100x(L-D)/(L+D)} of these amino acids was correlated almost linearly with that of the inducer, i.e., Asn. When recrystallizations from a mixture of 12 D,L-amino acids (Ala, Asp, Arg, Glu, Gln, His, Leu, Met, Ser, Val, Phe, and Tyr) and excess D,L-Asn were made, all amino acids with the same configuration with Asn were preferentially co-crystallized.[20] It was incidental whether the enrichment took place in L- or D-Asn, however, once the selection was made, the co-existing amino acid with the same configuration at the α-carbon was preferentially involved because of thermodynamic stability in the crystal formation. The maximal ee was reported to be 100%. Based on these results, it is proposed that a mixture of racemic amino acids causes spontaneous and effective optical resolution, even if asymmetric synthesis of a single amino acid does not occur without an aid of an optically active molecule.

This is the first study elucidating reasonably the formation of chirality from racemic amino acids with experimental evidences.


This term was introduced by Kelvin in 1904, the year that he published his Baltimore Lecture of 1884. Kelvin used the term homochirality as a relationship between two molecules, i.e. two molecule are homochiral if they have the same chirality.[17][21] Recently, however, homochiral has been used in the same sense as enantiomerically pure. This is permitted in some journals (but not encouraged), its meaning changing into the preference of a process or system for a single optical isomer in a pair of isomers in these journals.

See also


  1. (2009), A New Definition of Life, Carroll, J. D. Chirality, 21: 354–358, 2009. doi:10.1002/chir.20590
  2. Do Homochiral Aggregates Have an Entropic Advantage? Julian, R. R.; Myung, S.; Clemmer, D. E. J. Phys. Chem. B.; (Article); 2005; 109(1); 440-444. doi:10.1021/jp046478x
  3. Jaakkola, S., Sharma, V. and Annila, A. (2008). "Cause of chirality consensus". Curr. Chem. Biol. 2 (2): 53–58. doi:10.2174/187231308784220536.
  4. Plasson, Raphaël; Kondepudi, Dilip K.; Bersini, Hugues; et al. (August 2007). "Emergence of homochirality in far-from-equilibrium systems: Mechanisms and role in prebiotic chemistry". Chirality. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons. 19 (8): 589–600. doi:10.1002/chir.20440. ISSN 0899-0042. PMID 17559107. "Special Issue: Proceedings from the Eighteenth International Symposium on Chirality (ISCD-18), Busan, Korea, 2006"
  5. Clark, Stuart (July–August 1999). "Polarized Starlight and the Handedness of Life". American Scientist. Research Triangle Park, NC: Sigma Xi. 87 (4): 336. Bibcode:1999AmSci..87..336C. doi:10.1511/1999.4.336. ISSN 0003-0996.
  6. Shibata, Takanori; Morioka, Hiroshi; Hayase, Tadakatsu; et al. (17 January 1996). "Highly Enantioselective Catalytic Asymmetric Automultiplication of Chiral Pyrimidyl Alcohol". Journal of the American Chemical Society. Washington, D.C.: American Chemical Society. 118 (2): 471–472. doi:10.1021/ja953066g. ISSN 0002-7863.
  7. Soai, Kenso; Sato, Itaru; Shibata, Takanori (2001). "Asymmetric autocatalysis and the origin of chiral homogeneity in organic compounds". The Chemical Record. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons on behalf of The Japan Chemical Journal Forum. 1 (4): 321–332. doi:10.1002/tcr.1017. ISSN 1528-0691. PMID 11893072.
  8. Uwe Meierhenrich. Amino Acids and the Asymmetry of Life; (Book) Springer-Verlag; 2008. ISBN 978-3-540-76885-2
  9. Rajan, Aruna. "How did protein amino acids get left-handed while sugars got right-handed?" (PDF). Term Paper for Physics 569*. Retrieved June 18, 2014.
  10. "Interview: In the beginning...". Highlights in Chemical Science (5). 2008. Retrieved June 18, 2014.
  11. Takanori Shibata; Hiroshi Morioka; Tadakatsu Hayase; Kaori Choji; Kenso Soai (1996). "Highly Enantioselective Catalytic Asymmetric Automultiplication of Chiral Pyrimidyl Alcohol". J. Am. Chem. Soc. 118 (2): 471–472. doi:10.1021/ja953066g.
  12. Suju P. Mathew, Hiroshi Iwamura and Donna G. Blackmond (21 June 2004). "Amplification of Enantiomeric Excess in a Proline-Mediated Reaction". Angewandte Chemie International Edition. 43 (25): 3317–3321. doi:10.1002/anie.200453997. PMID 15213963.
  13. Cooks, R. G., Zhang, D., Koch, K. J. (2001). "Chiroselective Self-Directed Octamerization of Serine: Implications for Homochirogenesis". Anal. Chem. 73 (15): 3646–3655. doi:10.1021/ac010284l. PMID 11510829.
  14. Nanita, S., Cooks, R. G. (2006). "Serine Octamers: Cluster Formation, Reactions, and Implications for Biomolecule Homochirality". Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 45 (4): 554–569. doi:10.1002/anie.200501328. PMID 16404754.
  15. Donna G. Blackmond; Martin Klussmann (2007). "Spoilt for choice: assessing phase behaviour models for the evolution of homochirality". Chem. Commun. (39): 3990–3996. doi:10.1039/b709314b. PMID 17912393.
  16. Stephen P. Fletcher; Richard B. C. Jagt; Ben L. Feringa (2007). "An astrophysically relevant mechanism for amino acid enantiomer enrichment". Chem. Commun. 2007 (25): 2578–2580. doi:10.1039/b702882b. PMID 17579743.
  17. 1 2 Armando Córdova; Magnus Engqvist; Ismail Ibrahem; Jesús Casas; Henrik Sundén (2005). "Plausible origins of homochirality in the amino acid catalyzed neogenesis of carbohydrates". Chem. Commun. 15 (15): 2047–2049. doi:10.1039/b500589b. PMID 15834501.
  18. Kondepudi, D. K., Kaufman, R. J. & Singh, N. (1990). "Chiral Symmetry Breaking in Sodium Chlorate Crystallization". Science. 250 (4983): 975–976. Bibcode:1990Sci...250..975K. doi:10.1126/science.250.4983.975. PMID 17746924.
  19. Emergence of a Single Solid Chiral State from a Nearly Racemic Amino Acid Derivative Wim L. Noorduin, Toshiko Izumi, Alessia Millemaggi, Michel Leeman, Hugo Meekes, Willem J. P. Van Enckevort, Richard M. Kellogg, Bernard Kaptein, Elias Vlieg, and Donna G. Blackmond J. Am. Chem. Soc.; 2008; 130(4) pp 1158 - 1159; (Communication) doi:10.1021/ja7106349
  20. 1 2 S. Kojo; H. Uchino; M. Yoshimura; K. Tanaka (2004). "Racemic D,L-asparagine causes enantiomeric excess of other coexisting racemic D,L-amino acids during recrystallization: a hypothesis accounting for the origin of L-amino acids in the biosphere.". Chem. Comm. (19): 2146–2147. doi:10.1039/b409941a. PMID 15467844.
  21. Stereochemistry David G. Morris, Cambridge : Royal Society of Chemistry, 2001, p30.

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