The Mystery Of Homochirality On Earth

By Keith Cowing
Status Report
March 29, 2024
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The Mystery Of Homochirality On Earth
The discussion of homochirality is nearly always focused on asymmetric carbon atoms of monomeric subunits, such as the two enantiomers of the amino acid alanine here. Source: Synpath, Wikimedia, CC-BY-SA-4.0.

Homochirality is an obvious feature of life on Earth. On the other hand, extraterrestrial samples contain largely racemic compounds. The same is true for any common organic synthesis.

Therefore, it has been a perplexing puzzle for decades how these racemates could have formed enantiomerically enriched fractions as a basis for the origin of homochiral life forms. Numerous hypotheses have been put forward as to how preferentially homochiral molecules could have formed and accumulated on Earth. In this article, it is shown that homochirality of the abiotic organic pool at the time of formation of the first self-replicating molecules is not necessary and not even probable.

It is proposed to abandon the notion of a molecular ensemble and to focus on the level of individual molecules. Although the formation of the first self-replicating, most likely homochiral molecule, is a seemingly improbable event, on a closer look, it is almost inevitable that some homochiral molecules have formed simply on a statistical basis. In this case, the non-selective leap to homochirality would be one of the first steps in chemical evolution directly out of a racemic “ocean”.

Moreover, most studies focus on the chirality of the primordial monomers with respect to an asymmetric carbon atom. However, any polymer with a minimal size that allows folding to a secondary structure would spontaneously lead to asymmetric higher structures (conformations). Most of the functions of these polymers would be influenced by this inherently asymmetric folding.

Furthermore, a concept of physical compartmentalization based on rock nanopores in analogy to nanocavities of digital immunoassays is introduced to suggest that complex cell walls or membranes were also not required for the first steps of chemical evolution. To summarize, simple and universal mechanisms may have led to homochiral self-replicating systems in the context of chemical evolution. A homochiral monomer pool is deemed unnecessary and probably never existed on primordial Earth.

Michael G. Weller
Life 2024, 14(3), 341; DOI: 10.3390/life14030341
Astrobiology, Astrochemistry,

Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA Space Station Payload manager/space biologist, Away Teams, Journalist, Lapsed climber, Synaesthete, Na’Vi-Jedi-Freman-Buddhist-mix, ASL, Devon Island and Everest Base Camp veteran, (he/him) 🖖🏻