In chemistry, a molecule or ion is called chiral (//) 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. The terms are derived from Ancient Greek χείρ (cheir), meaning "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 groups attached to it in a tetrahedral geometry. A given stereocenter has two possible configurations, 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 has an internal plane of symmetry, then the molecule is achiral and is known as a meso compound. 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.
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), the amino acids that are the building blocks of proteins, and the nucleic acids. 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, at room temperature butane is considered achiral even though its gauche conformer is not identical to its mirror image 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 invert and interconvert through a planar transition state (~6 kcal/mol barrier). However, if the temperature is low enough, the interconversion that renders these molecules achiral at room temperature is slow on a given timescale (for example, 1000 seconds is sometimes considered the timescale for chemical or chromatographic separation of enantiomers), making the molecule chiral at low temperature. 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.
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 centre 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.
|Improper rotational elements (Sn)|
S1 = σ
S2 = i
(Note: This molecule has only one C2 axis:
perpendicular to line of three C, but not in the plane of the figure.)
Note: This also has a mirror plane.
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.
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.
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.
While the presence of a stereogenic center describes the great majority of chiral molecules, many variations and exceptions exist. For instance it is not necessary for the chiral substance to have a stereogenic center. Examples include 1-bromo-3-chloro-5-fluoroadamantane, methylethylphenyltetrahedrane, certain calixarenes and fullerenes, which have inherent chirality. The C2-symmetric species 1,1′-bi-2-naphthol (BINOL), 1,3-dichloroallene have axial chirality. (E)-cyclooctene and many ferrocenes have planar chirality.
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).
The origin of this homochirality in biology is the subject of much debate. 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.
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. Spearmint leaves contain the L-enantiomer of the chemical carvone or R-(−)-carvone and caraway seeds contain the D-enantiomer or S-(+)-carvone. 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.
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. 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.
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 brucite. Some racemtic 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.
The rotation of plane polarized light by chiral substances was first observed by Jean-Baptiste Biot in 1815, and gained considerable importance in the sugar industry, analytical chemistry, and pharmaceuticals. Louis Pasteur deduced in 1848 that this phenomenon has a molecular basis. The term chirality itself was coined by Lord Kelvin in 1894. Different enantiomers or diastereomers of a compound were formerly called optical isomers due to their different optical properties. 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.
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