Uncovering the code for chirality

Scientists shed light on how chirality is transmitted to inorganic minerals

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A study, led by a collaborative research team, enhances our understanding of how biological molecules dictate the shape of inorganic minerals, as well as the underlying mechanisms determining the nature of their chirality.

With the use of the submolecular resolution capability of scanning tunnelling microscopy, supported by photoelectron diffraction and density functional theory, the team we able to demonstrate how the chiral ‘buckybowl’ hemibuckminsterfullerene arranges copper surface atoms in its vicinity into a chiral morphology.

Co-author of the study, Werner Hofer (Newcastle University, UK) explains: "We were able to see that the organic molecules are acting as a scaffold, dictating where the atoms of the minerals are placed and how they are linked together – a bit like building blocks. And as they do this, the biomolecules transfer their left or right-handed nature, or chirality, to the crystal structure.” Hofer added that, by understanding this process, it is now theoretically feasible to force materials to behave in a certain way, using biological plans to create particular shapes and structures, which could potentially have significant implications in the fields of materials design and drug synthesis.

The importance of chirality in drug development was brought to light in the early 1960s when the devastating side-effects of the previously widely prescribed drug Thalidomide were realized. "The Thalidomide tragedy highlights the important role played by chirality in biological systems and what happens when we get it wrong," commented Hofer. The team hopes that this research will assist in the stereospecific synthesis of new drugs and materials in the future.

Source: Xiao W,Ernst K-H, Palotas K et al. Microscopic origin of chiral shape induction in achiral crystals. Nature Chem. (Epub Ahead of Print doi:10.1038/nchem.2449) 2016.

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Hannah Coaker

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