Beyond the “Lock-and-key” Principle
An object is chiral if it is not identical to its mirror image or cannot be superimposed upon itself. Chirality recognition refers to nature’s fascinating ability to discriminate between a pair of non-superposable mirror images. For example, our noses can smell different lemon and orange scents in a mirror image pair of limonene (a colourless liquid hydrocarbon). The subtle change of replacing a chiral drug by its mirror image can have drastically different pharmacological and biological effects on our body. For more than a century, Nobel Prize-winning chemist Emil Fischer’s “lock-and-key” principle has been used to rationalize such recognition processes empirically. It has been a longstanding dream of researchers to measure these fascinating processes rigorously and accurately. Dr. Yunjie Xu, Canada Research Chair in Chirality and Chirality Recognition, is measuring how various intermolecular interaction forces come together in a concerted way to achieve chirality recognition in such complex environments as aqueous solutions (solutions in which the solvent is water) and metal clusters. To tackle the challenges of achieving quantitative descriptions of complex chirality recognition processes in the real world, Xu has crafted her research to bridge the knowledge gap from the gas phase to aqueous conditions under which most biological events occur. Xu is using and developing highly sophisticated spectroscopic techniques (involving the interaction between matter and radiated energy) to capture chirality recognition processes with unprecedented details in order to gain quantitative insights into these fascinating processes. Xu’s research could have far-reaching impacts in areas ranging from the creation of more efficient chiral catalysts (substances that increase the rate of chemical reaction) to the design of better drugs.