5.12 • Chirality in Nature and Chiral Environments
Although the different enantiomers of a chiral molecule have the same physical properties, they usually have different biological properties. For example, a change in chirality can affect the biological properties of many drugs, such as fluoxetine, a heavily prescribed medication sold under the trade name Prozac. Racemic fluoxetine is an effective antidepressant but has no activity against migraine. The pure S enantiomer, however, works remarkably well in preventing migraine. Other examples of how chirality affects biological properties are given in the Chapter 5 Chemistry Matters at the end of this chapter.
Why do different enantiomers have different biological properties? To have a biological effect, a substance typically must fit into an appropriate receptor that has a complementary shape. But because biological receptors are chiral, only one enantiomer of a chiral substrate can fit, just as only a right hand can fit into a right-handed glove. The mirror-image enantiomer will be a misfit, like a left hand in a right-handed glove. A representation of the interaction between a chiral molecule and a chiral biological receptor is shown in Figure 5.16: one enantiomer fits the receptor perfectly, but the other does not.
The hand-in-glove fit of a chiral substrate into a chiral receptor is relatively straightforward, but it’s less obvious how a prochiral substrate can undergo a selective reaction. Take the reaction of ethanol with NAD+ catalyzed by yeast alcohol dehydrogenase. As we saw at the end of Section 5.11, this reaction occurs with exclusive removal of the pro-R hydrogen from ethanol and with addition only to the Re face of the NAD+ carbon.
We can understand this result by imagining that the chiral enzyme receptor again has three binding sites, as in Figure 5.16. When green and gray substituents of a prochiral substrate are held appropriately, however, only one of the two red substituents—say, the pro-S one—is also held while the other, pro-R, substituent is exposed for reaction.
We describe the situation by saying that the receptor provides a chiral environment for the substrate. In the absence of a chiral environment, the two red substituents are chemically identical, but in the presence of a chiral environment, they are chemically distinctive (Figure 5.17a). The situation is similar to what happens when you pick up a coffee mug. By itself, the mug has a plane of symmetry and is achiral. When you pick up the mug, however, your hand provides a chiral environment so that one side becomes much more accessible and easier to drink from than the other (Figure 5.17b).