Exploring Chirality in Outer Space
What is the origin of stereochemical bias – terrestrial autocatalytic processes, extraterrestrial contamination or otherworldly intervention? Here, I review the gas chromatographic tools being used in the search for homochirality in space – the final front
Volker Schurig |
Dedicated to the late Professor Emanuel Gil-Av - the pioneer of modern enantioselective chromatography - on the occasion of his centenary in 2016.
Stereochemical bias is considered to be one of the preconditions for the formation of life on Earth. Yet even in our third millennium, we do not know how the preference of the image over its incongruent mirror image was achieved – a phenomenon called molecular homochirality, single-handedness or symmetry-breaking. It is also unclear why evolution exclusively selected L-amino acids and D-sugars as homochiral building blocks of proteins and nucleic acids in all living species, including viruses, bacteria, plants, animals and humans.
The discrimination of chiral biogenic molecules, called enantiomers, may have occurred on Earth by autocatalysis, or may be the result of extraterrestrial contamination with homochiral molecules (caused by the existence of circular-polarized light in interstellar space) or, less likely in my opinion, as a result of parity-violation energy differences. Therefore, various space missions are under way – or are planned – to detect extraterrestrial homochirality. For this challenge, enantiomers, which possess strictly identical (nonchiroptical) properties in a nonchiral symmetric environment, must be resolved. Consequently, the current Rosetta- and Exo-Mars-missions are equipped with enantioselective gas chromatographic columns containing chiral stationary phases (CSPs) to separate and detect volatile enantiomers as biomarkers of life (1, 2).
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