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Techniques & Tools Mass Spectrometry, Chemical, Gas Chromatography

Exploring Chirality in Outer Space

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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About the Author

Volker Schurig

Institute of Organic Chemistry, University of Tübingen, Germany.

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