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Breakthrough Technique Accurately Detects the ‘Handedness’ of Molecules

posted Jun 25, 2015, 12:52 AM by Maurice Janssen   [ updated Jun 25, 2015, 1:12 AM ]
A new technique that can determine whether a molecule is present in a left- or right-handed form may have a multitude of practical applications, potentially leading to new and improved drugs, diagnosis methods, and pesticides. Scientists have demonstrated for the first time the ability to rapidly, reliably and simultaneously identify the ‘handedness’ of different molecules in a mixture. The research, led by chemists at the VU University Amsterdam and the University of Nottingham, and published in the academic journal Nature Communications (24 June 2015), could offer a new technique to easily distinguish whether a molecule is present in a left- or right-handed form. The breakthrough could be important in developing effective molecules for use in a wide range of industries — everything from the development of safer new drugs and disease diagnosis to less toxic pesticides.

Many molecules exist in forms which are essentially identical, apart from being exact mirror images of one another. It is common for these so-called chiral molecules to exist in just one form in biological systems, although scientists still don’t fully understand why. For example, although both forms of amino acid molecules — the building blocks of life itself — can be made in the laboratory, in nature they only occur in the left-handed form. The chirality of these biomolecules also strongly affects the way in which they interact with other molecules, for instance with chiral drugs. Presently, more than 50 per cent of all drugs produced are active in only one of their two handed forms.

The latest research demonstrates a rapid new technique that can be used to identify the handedness of chiral molecules with more tangible effects and a greater degree of accuracy. Mass-Selected PhotoElectron Circular Dichroism (MS-PECD) uses circularly polarised light produced by a laser to ionise the molecules — using a couple of photons to knock an electron out of the chiral molecule to leave a positively charged ion behind.By tracking the direction that the electrons take when they travel out of the molecule — either forwards or backwards along the laser beam — it is possible to distinguish between left and right handed molecules with an accuracy of up to several tens of per cent rather than a fraction of a per cent.

For the full press release in English see here at the University of Nottingham.

For the full press release in Dutch by SciTechAdvisors see here (pdf).

The full paper in Nature Communications June 2015 can be accessed as OPEN ACCESS.

Maurice Janssen,
Jun 25, 2015, 12:52 AM