Chirality (chemistry)

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Two enantiomers of a generic amino acid that are chiral Chirality with hands.svg
Two enantiomers of a generic amino acid that are chiral
(S)-Alanine (left) and (R)-alanine (right) in zwitterionic form at neutral pH L- and d- alanine scheme and 3d representation.png
(S)-Alanine (left) and (R)-alanine (right) in zwitterionic form at neutral pH

In chemistry, a molecule or ion is called chiral ( /ˈkrəl/ ) if it cannot be superposed on its mirror image by any combination of rotations, translations, and some conformational changes. This geometric property is called chirality ( /kˈrælɪti/ ). [1] [2] [3] [4] The terms are derived from Ancient Greek χείρ (cheir) 'hand'; which is the canonical example of an object with this property.


A chiral molecule or ion exists in two stereoisomers that are mirror images of each other, called enantiomers; they are often distinguished as either "right-handed" or "left-handed" by their absolute configuration or some other criterion. The two enantiomers have the same chemical properties, except when reacting with other chiral compounds. They also have the same physical properties, except that they often have opposite optical activities. A homogeneous mixture of the two enantiomers in equal parts is said to be racemic, and it usually differs chemically and physically from the pure enantiomers.

Chiral molecules will usually have a stereogenic element from which chirality arises. The most common type of stereogenic element is a stereogenic center, or stereocenter. In the case of organic compounds, stereocenters most frequently take the form of a carbon atom with four distinct (different) groups attached to it in a tetrahedral geometry. Less commonly, other atoms like N, P, S, and Si can also serve as stereocenters, provided they have four distinct substituents (including lone pair electrons) attached to them.

A given stereocenter has two possible configurations (R and S), which give rise to stereoisomers (diastereomers and enantiomers) in molecules with one or more stereocenter. For a chiral molecule with one or more stereocenter, the enantiomer corresponds to the stereoisomer in which every stereocenter has the opposite configuration. An organic compound with only one stereogenic carbon is always chiral. On the other hand, an organic compound with multiple stereogenic carbons is typically, but not always, chiral. In particular, if the stereocenters are configured in such a way that the molecule can take a conformation having a plane of symmetry or an inversion point, then the molecule is achiral and is known as a meso compound.

Molecules with chirality arising from one or more stereocenters are classified as possessing central chirality. There are two other types of stereogenic elements that can give rise to chirality, a stereogenic axis (axial chirality) and a stereogenic plane (planar chirality). Finally, the inherent curvature of a molecule can also give rise to chirality (inherent chirality). These types of chirality are far less common than central chirality. BINOL is a typical example of an axially chiral molecule, while trans-cyclooctene is a commonly cited example of a planar chiral molecule. Finally, helicene possesses helical chirality, which is one type of inherent chirality.

Chirality is an important concept for stereochemistry and biochemistry. Most substances relevant to biology are chiral, such as carbohydrates (sugars, starch, and cellulose), all but one of the amino acids that are the building blocks of proteins, and the nucleic acids. Naturally occurring triglycerides are often chiral, but not always. In living organisms, one typically finds only one of the two enantiomers of a chiral compound. For that reason, organisms that consume a chiral compound usually can metabolize only one of its enantiomers. For the same reason, the two enantiomers of a chiral pharmaceutical usually have vastly different potencies or effects.


The chirality of a molecule is based on the molecular symmetry of its conformations. A conformation of a molecule is chiral if and only if it belongs to the Cn, Dn, T, O, I point groups (the chiral point groups). However, whether the molecule itself is considered to be chiral depends on whether its chiral conformations are persistent isomers that could be isolated as separated enantiomers, at least in principle, or the enantiomeric conformers rapidly interconvert at a given temperature and timescale through low-energy conformational changes (rendering the molecule achiral). For example, despite having chiral gauche conformers that belong to the C2 point group, butane is considered achiral at room temperature because rotation about the central C–C bond rapidly interconverts the enantiomers (3.4 kcal/mol barrier). Similarly, cis-1,2-dichlorocyclohexane consists of chair conformers that are nonidentical mirror images, but the two can interconvert via the cyclohexane chair flip (~10 kcal/mol barrier). As another example, amines with three distinct substituents (R1R2R3N:) are also regarded as achiral molecules because their enantiomeric pyramidal conformers rapidly undergo pyramidal inversion.

However, if the temperature in question is low enough, the process that interconverts the enantiomeric chiral conformations becomes slow compared to a given timescale. The molecule would then be considered to be chiral at that temperature. The relevant timescale is, to some degree, arbitrarily defined: 1000 seconds is sometimes employed, as this is regarded as the lower limit for the amount of time required for chemical or chromatographic separation of enantiomers in a practical sense. Molecules that are chiral at room temperature due to restricted rotation about a single bond (barrier to rotation ≥ ca. 23 kcal/mol) are said to exhibit atropisomerism.

A chiral compound can contain no improper axis of rotation (Sn), which includes planes of symmetry and inversion center. Chiral molecules are always dissymmetric (lacking Sn) but not always asymmetric (lacking all symmetry elements except the trivial identity). Asymmetric molecules are always chiral. [5]

The following table shows some examples of chiral and achiral molecules, with the Schoenflies notation of the point group of the molecule. In the achiral molecules, X and Y (with no subscript) represent achiral groups, whereas XR and XS or YR and YS represent enantiomers. Note that there is no meaning to the orientation of an S2 axis, which is just an inversion. Any orientation will do, so long as it passes through the center of inversion. Also note that higher symmetries of chiral and achiral molecules also exist, and symmetries that do not include those in the table, such as the chiral C3 or the achiral S4.

Molecular symmetry and chirality
axis (Cn)
Improper rotational elements (Sn)
no Sn
mirror plane
S1 = σ
inversion center
S2 = i
C1 Chiral sym CHXYZ.svg
Chiral sym CHXYRYS.svg
Chiral sym CCXRYRXSYS.svg
C2 Chiral sym CCCXYXY.svg
(Note: This molecule has only one C2 axis:
perpendicular to line of three C, but not in the plane of the figure.)
Chiral sym CHHXX.svg
Chiral sym CCXYXY.svg
Note: This also has a mirror plane.

An example of a molecule that does not have a mirror plane or an inversion and yet would be considered achiral is 1,1-difluoro-2,2-dichlorocyclohexane (or 1,1-difluoro-3,3-dichlorocyclohexane). This may exist in many conformers (conformational isomers), but none of them has a mirror plane. In order to have a mirror plane, the cyclohexane ring would have to be flat, widening the bond angles and giving the conformation a very high energy. This compound would not be considered chiral because the chiral conformers interconvert easily.

An achiral molecule having chiral conformations could theoretically form a mixture of right-handed and left-handed crystals, as often happens with racemic mixtures of chiral molecules (see Chiral resolution#Spontaneous resolution and related specialized techniques), or as when achiral liquid silicon dioxide is cooled to the point of becoming chiral quartz.

Stereogenic centers

Here, swapping of the two groups a and b leads to a molecule that is a stereoisomer of the original (the enantiomer, assuming there are no other stereogenic elements in the molecule). Hence, the central carbon atom is a stereocenter. Illustrate stereocenter.png
Here, swapping of the two groups a and b leads to a molecule that is a stereoisomer of the original (the enantiomer, assuming there are no other stereogenic elements in the molecule). Hence, the central carbon atom is a stereocenter.

A stereogenic center (or stereocenter) is an atom such that swapping the positions of two ligands (connected groups) on that atom results in a molecule that is stereoisomeric to the original. For example, a common case is a tetrahedral carbon bonded to four distinct groups a, b, c, and d (Cabcd), where swapping any two groups (e.g., Cbacd) leads to a stereoisomer of the original, so the central C is a stereocenter. Many chiral molecules have point chirality, namely a single chiral stereogenic center that coincides with an atom. This stereogenic center usually has four or more bonds to different groups, and may be carbon (as in many biological molecules), phosphorus (as in many organophosphates), silicon, or a metal (as in many chiral coordination compounds). However, a stereogenic center can also be a trivalent atom whose bonds are not in the same plane, such as phosphorus in P-chiral phosphines (PRR′R″) and sulfur in S-chiral sulfoxides (OSRR′), because a lone-pair of electrons is present instead of a fourth bond.

1,1'-Bi-2-naphthol is an example of a molecule with a stereogenic axis. R-BINOL-2D-skeletal.png
1,1′-Bi-2-naphthol is an example of a molecule with a stereogenic axis.

Similarly, a stereogenic axis (or plane) is defined as an axis (or plane) in the molecule such that the swapping of any two ligands attached to the axis (or plane) gives rise to a stereoisomer. For instance, the C2-symmetric species 1,1′-bi-2-naphthol (BINOL) and 1,3-dichloroallene have stereogenic axes and exhibit axial chirality, while (E)-cyclooctene and many ferrocene derivatives bearing two or more substituents have stereogenic planes and exhibit planar chirality.

Chirality can also arise from isotopic differences between atoms, such as in the deuterated benzyl alcohol PhCHDOH; which is chiral and optically active ([α]D = 0.715°), even though the non-deuterated compound PhCH2OH is not. [6]

If two enantiomers easily interconvert, the pure enantiomers may be practically impossible to separate, and only the racemic mixture is observable. This is the case, for example, of most amines with three different substituents (NRR′R″), because of the low energy barrier for nitrogen inversion.

An adamantane derivative that is a chiral molecule but lacking any stereogenic centers. The center of chirality, marked by a black dot, is not at any of the atoms themselves. Chiral-adamantane-derivative.png
An adamantane derivative that is a chiral molecule but lacking any stereogenic centers. The center of chirality, marked by a black dot, is not at any of the atoms themselves.

It is not necessary for the chiral substance to have a stereogenic element. Examples include certain helicenes, calixarenes and fullerenes, which have inherent chirality. Moreover, it is possible for a molecule to have a center of chirality that sits in a position that does not correspond to an atom. Such a molecule may be chiral without having any stereogenic centers. Examples include 1,3,5(,7)-substituted adamantanes such as (1S,3R,5R,7S)-3-methyl-5-phenyladamantane-1-carboxylic acid (pictured). [7] [8]

When the optical rotation for an enantiomer is too low for practical measurement, the species is said to exhibit cryptochirality.

Chirality is an intrinsic part of the identity of a molecule, so the systematic name includes details of the absolute configuration (R/S, D/L, or other designations).

Manifestations of chirality

In biochemistry

Many biologically active molecules are chiral, including the naturally occurring amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) and sugars.

The origin of this homochirality in biology is the subject of much debate. [14] Most scientists believe that Earth life's "choice" of chirality was purely random, and that if carbon-based life forms exist elsewhere in the universe, their chemistry could theoretically have opposite chirality. However, there is some suggestion that early amino acids could have formed in comet dust. In this case, circularly polarised radiation (which makes up 17% of stellar radiation) could have caused the selective destruction of one chirality of amino acids, leading to a selection bias which ultimately resulted in all life on Earth being homochiral. [15] [16]

Enzymes, which are chiral, often distinguish between the two enantiomers of a chiral substrate. One could imagine an enzyme as having a glove-like cavity that binds a substrate. If this glove is right-handed, then one enantiomer will fit inside and be bound, whereas the other enantiomer will have a poor fit and is unlikely to bind.

L-forms of amino acids tend to be tasteless, whereas D-forms tend to taste sweet. [14] Spearmint leaves contain the L-enantiomer of the chemical carvone or R-(−)-carvone and caraway seeds contain the D-enantiomer or S-(+)-carvone. [10] The two smell different to most people because our olfactory receptors are chiral.

Chirality is important in context of ordered phases as well, for example the addition of a small amount of an optically active molecule to a nematic phase (a phase that has long range orientational order of molecules) transforms that phase to a chiral nematic phase (or cholesteric phase). Chirality in context of such phases in polymeric fluids has also been studied in this context. [17]

In inorganic chemistry

Delta-ruthenium-tris(bipyridine) cation Delta-ruthenium-tris(bipyridine)-cation-3D-balls.png
Delta-ruthenium-tris(bipyridine) cation

Chirality is a symmetry property, not a property of any part of the periodic table. Thus many inorganic materials, molecules, and ions are chiral. Quartz is an example from the mineral kingdom. Such noncentric materials are of interest for applications in nonlinear optics.

In the areas of coordination chemistry and organometallic chemistry, chirality is pervasive and of practical importance. A famous example is tris(bipyridine)ruthenium(II) complex in which the three bipyridine ligands adopt a chiral propeller-like arrangement. [18] The two enantiomers of complexes such as [Ru(2,2′-bipyridine)3]2+ may be designated as Λ (capital lambda, the Greek version of "L") for a left-handed twist of the propeller described by the ligands, and Δ (capital delta, Greek "D") for a right-handed twist (pictured). Also cf. dextro- and levo- (laevo-).

Chiral ligands confer chirality to a metal complex, as illustrated by metal-amino acid complexes. If the metal exhibits catalytic properties, its combination with a chiral ligand is the basis of asymmetric catalysis. [19]

Methods and practices

The term optical activity is derived from the interaction of chiral materials with polarized light. In a solution, the (−)-form, or levorotatory form, of an optical isomer rotates the plane of a beam of linearly polarized light counterclockwise. The (+)-form, or dextrorotatory form, of an optical isomer does the opposite. The rotation of light is measured using a polarimeter and is expressed as the optical rotation.

Enantiomers can be separated by chiral resolution. This often involves forming crystals of a salt composed of one of the enantiomers and an acid or base from the so-called chiral pool of naturally occurring chiral compounds, such as malic acid or the amine brucine. Some racemic mixtures spontaneously crystallize into right-handed and left-handed crystals that can be separated by hand. Louis Pasteur used this method to separate left-handed and right-handed sodium ammonium tartrate crystals in 1849. Sometimes it is possible to seed a racemic solution with a right-handed and a left-handed crystal so that each will grow into a large crystal.

Liquid chromatography (HPLC and TLC) may also be used as an analytical method for the direct separation of enantiomers and the control of enantiomeric purity, e.g. active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) which are chiral. [20] [21]

Miscellaneous nomenclature


The rotation of plane polarized light by chiral substances was first observed by Jean-Baptiste Biot in 1812, [26] and gained considerable importance in the sugar industry, analytical chemistry, and pharmaceuticals. Louis Pasteur deduced in 1848 that this phenomenon has a molecular basis. [27] [28] The term chirality itself was coined by Lord Kelvin in 1894. [29] Different enantiomers or diastereomers of a compound were formerly called optical isomers due to their different optical properties. [30] At one time, chirality was thought to be restricted to organic chemistry, but this misconception was overthrown by the resolution of a purely inorganic compound, a cobalt complex called hexol, by Alfred Werner in 1911. [31]

In the early 1970s, various groups established that the human olfactory organ is capable of distinguishing chiral compounds. [10] [32] [33]

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Cahn–Ingold–Prelog priority rules</span> Naming convention for stereoisomers of molecules

In organic chemistry, the Cahn–Ingold–Prelog (CIP) sequence rules are a standard process to completely and unequivocally name a stereoisomer of a molecule. The purpose of the CIP system is to assign an R or S descriptor to each stereocenter and an E or Z descriptor to each double bond so that the configuration of the entire molecule can be specified uniquely by including the descriptors in its systematic name. A molecule may contain any number of stereocenters and any number of double bonds, and each usually gives rise to two possible isomers. A molecule with an integer n describing the number of stereocenters will usually have 2n stereoisomers, and 2n−1 diastereomers each having an associated pair of enantiomers. The CIP sequence rules contribute to the precise naming of every stereoisomer of every organic molecule with all atoms of ligancy of fewer than 4.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Stereoisomerism</span> When molecules have the same atoms and bond structure but differ in 3D orientation

In stereochemistry, stereoisomerism, or spatial isomerism, is a form of isomerism in which molecules have the same molecular formula and sequence of bonded atoms (constitution), but differ in the three-dimensional orientations of their atoms in space. This contrasts with structural isomers, which share the same molecular formula, but the bond connections or their order differs. By definition, molecules that are stereoisomers of each other represent the same structural isomer.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Stereochemistry</span> Subdiscipline of chemistry

Stereochemistry, a subdiscipline of chemistry, involves the study of the relative spatial arrangement of atoms that form the structure of molecules and their manipulation. The study of stereochemistry focuses on the relationships between stereoisomers, which by definition have the same molecular formula and sequence of bonded atoms (constitution), but differ in the geometric positioning of the atoms in space. For this reason, it is also known as 3D chemistry—the prefix "stereo-" means "three-dimensionality".

In chemistry, a racemic mixture or racemate, is one that has equal amounts of left- and right-handed enantiomers of a chiral molecule or salt. Racemic mixtures are rare in nature, but many compounds are produced industrially as racemates.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Enantiomer</span> Stereoisomers that are nonsuperposable mirror images of each other

In chemistry, an enantiomer – also called optical isomer, antipode, or optical antipode – is one of two stereoisomers that are nonsuperposable onto their own mirror image. Enantiomers of each other are much like one's right and left hands; without mirroring one of them, hands cannot be superposed onto each other. It is solely a relationship of chirality and the permanent three-dimensional relationships among molecules or other chemical structures: no amount of re-orientiation of a molecule as a whole or conformational change converts one chemical into its enantiomer. Chemical structures with chirality rotate plane-polarized light. A mixture of equal amounts of each enantiomer, a racemic mixture or a racemate, does not rotate light.

In chemistry, racemization is a conversion, by heat or by chemical reaction, of an optically active compound into a racemic form. This creates a 1:1 molar ratio of enantiomers and is referred to as a racemic mixture. Plus and minus forms are called Dextrorotation and levorotation. The D and L enantiomers are present in equal quantities, the resulting sample is described as a racemic mixture or a racemate. Racemization can proceed through a number of different mechanisms, and it has particular significance in pharmacology as different enantiomers may have different pharmaceutical effects.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Stereocenter</span> Atom which is the focus of stereoisomerism in a molecule

In stereochemistry, a stereocenter of a molecule is an atom (center), axis or plane that is the focus of stereoisomerism; that is, when having at least three different groups bound to the stereocenter, interchanging any two different groups creates a new stereoisomer. Stereocenters are also referred to as stereogenic centers.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Diastereomer</span> Molecules which are non-mirror image, non-identical stereoisomers

In stereochemistry, diastereomers are a type of stereoisomer. Diastereomers are defined as non-mirror image, non-identical stereoisomers. Hence, they occur when two or more stereoisomers of a compound have different configurations at one or more of the equivalent (related) stereocenters and are not mirror images of each other. When two diastereoisomers differ from each other at only one stereocenter, they are epimers. Each stereocenter gives rise to two different configurations and thus typically increases the number of stereoisomers by a factor of two.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Meso compound</span> Optically inactive isomer in a set of stereoisomers

A meso compound or meso isomer is an optically inactive isomer in a set of stereoisomers, at least two of which are optically active. This means that despite containing two or more stereocenters, the molecule is not chiral. A meso compound is superposable on its mirror image. Two objects can be superposed if all aspects of the objects coincide and it does not produce a "(+)" or "(-)" reading when analyzed with a polarimeter. The name is derived from the Greek mésos meaning “middle”.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Enantioselective synthesis</span> Chemical reaction(s) which favor one chiral isomer over another

Enantioselective synthesis, also called asymmetric synthesis, is a form of chemical synthesis. It is defined by IUPAC as "a chemical reaction in which one or more new elements of chirality are formed in a substrate molecule and which produces the stereoisomeric products in unequal amounts."

In chemistry, stereoselectivity is the property of a chemical reaction in which a single reactant forms an unequal mixture of stereoisomers during a non-stereospecific creation of a new stereocenter or during a non-stereospecific transformation of a pre-existing one. The selectivity arises from differences in steric and electronic effects in the mechanistic pathways leading to the different products. Stereoselectivity can vary in degree but it can never be total since the activation energy difference between the two pathways is finite: both products are at least possible and merely differ in amount. However, in favorable cases, the minor stereoisomer may not be detectable by the analytic methods used.

In stereochemistry, enantiomeric excess (ee) is a measurement of purity used for chiral substances. It reflects the degree to which a sample contains one enantiomer in greater amounts than the other. A racemic mixture has an ee of 0%, while a single completely pure enantiomer has an ee of 100%. A sample with 70% of one enantiomer and 30% of the other has an ee of 40%.

Homochirality is a uniformity of chirality, or handedness. Objects are chiral when they cannot be superposed on their mirror images. For example, the left and right hands of a human are approximately mirror images of each other but are not their own mirror images, so they are chiral. In biology, 19 of the 20 natural amino acids are homochiral, being L-chiral (left-handed), while sugars are D-chiral (right-handed). Homochirality can also refer to enantiopure substances in which all the constituents are the same enantiomer, but some sources discourage this use of the term.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Atropisomer</span> Stereoisomerism due to hindered rotation

Atropisomers are stereoisomers arising because of hindered rotation about a single bond, where energy differences due to steric strain or other contributors create a barrier to rotation that is high enough to allow for isolation of individual conformers. They occur naturally and are important in pharmaceutical design. When the substituents are achiral, these conformers are enantiomers (atropoenantiomers), showing axial chirality; otherwise they are diastereomers (atropodiastereomers).

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Chiral auxiliary</span> Stereogenic group placed on a molecule to encourage stereoselectivity in reactions

In stereochemistry, a chiral auxiliary is a stereogenic group or unit that is temporarily incorporated into an organic compound in order to control the stereochemical outcome of the synthesis. The chirality present in the auxiliary can bias the stereoselectivity of one or more subsequent reactions. The auxiliary can then be typically recovered for future use.

The molecular configuration of a molecule is the permanent geometry that results from the spatial arrangement of its bonds. The ability of the same set of atoms to form two or more molecules with different configurations is stereoisomerism. This is distinct from constitutional isomerism which arises from atoms being connected in a different order. Conformers which arise from single bond rotations, if not isolatable as atropisomers, do not count as distinct molecular configurations as the spatial connectivity of bonds is identical.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Absolute configuration</span> Stereochemistry term

Absolute configuration refers to the spatial arrangement of atoms within a chiral molecular entity and its resultant stereochemical description. Absolute configuration is typically relevant in organic molecules where carbon is bonded to four different substituents. This type of construction creates two possible enantiomers. Absolute configuration uses a set of rules to describe the relative positions of each bond around the chiral center atom. The most common labeling method uses the descriptors R or S and is based on the Cahn–Ingold–Prelog priority rules. R and S refer to rectus and sinister, Latin for right and left, respectively.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Isomer</span> Chemical compounds with the same molecular formula but different atomic arrangements

In chemistry, isomers are molecules or polyatomic ions with identical molecular formula – that is, same number of atoms of each element – but distinct arrangements of atoms in space. Diamond and graphite are a familiar example; they are isomers of carbon. Isomerism refers to the existence or possibility of isomers.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Chirality</span> Difference in shape from a mirror image

Chirality is a property of asymmetry important in several branches of science. The word chirality is derived from the Greek χείρ (kheir), "hand", a familiar chiral object.

Chemical compounds that come as mirror-image pairs are referred to by chemists as chiral or handed molecules. Each twin is called an enantiomer. Drugs that exhibit handedness are referred to as chiral drugs. Chiral drugs that are equimolar (1:1) mixture of enantiomers are called racemic drugs and these are obviously devoid of optical rotation. The most commonly encountered stereogenic unit, that confers chirality to drug molecules are stereogenic center. Stereogenic center can be due to the presence of tetrahedral tetra coordinate atoms (C,N,P) and pyramidal tricoordinate atoms (N,S). The word chiral describes the three-dimensional architecture of the molecule and does not reveal the stereochemical composition. Hence "chiral drug" does not say whether the drug is racemic, single enantiomer or some other combination of stereoisomers. To resolve this issue Joseph Gal introduced a new term called unichiral. Unichiral indicates that the stereochemical composition of a chiral drug is homogenous consisting of a single enantiomer.


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Further reading