Getting the upperhand on nature

When Professor Reiko Kuroda pioneered several instruments to investigate the chirality of molecules in solid matter, her work lead to major breakthroughs in medical research and considerable progress in understanding the origins of life, as we know it. Scientific research in the area of chirality or ‘handedness,’ as it is commonly known, is also yielding significant rewards in microelectronics, with significant impact on the advancement of computers and mobile phones.

Whether you are right- or left-handed is a basic state that for most of us doesn’t inspire much thought. Yet, what if you were to be told that understanding handedness or chirality as it is also known, could lead to major breakthroughs in the understanding and treatment of neurodegenerative diseases, or cancer, or that it can contribute to the development of medicines, and other essential products that could improve everyday life?

Hand in Glove

All types of living and non-living things, even the smallest parts of our bodies, display chirality, meaning they are either right-handed or left-handed. Human hands are perhaps the most universally recognized example of chirality: the left hand is a non-superimposable mirror image of the right hand. No matter how the two hands are oriented, it is impossible for all the major features of both hands to coincide. Try shaking a person’s right hand using your left hand, or placing a left-handed glove on your right hand and the diffidence in symmetry is obvious. Yet, the importance of chirality goes way beyond a pair of gloves.

Chirality is a vital factor in revealing the structures of molecules, for example, which can have major impact on a variety of physical and biological systems. It can in turn help to further unlock the structure and the dynamics of proteins and DNA/RNA - the molecule carrying the genetic code for almost every living thing.

Unlocking the mysteries of chirality in molecules has brought about major discoveries that have advanced modern medicine in leaps and bounds. Louis Pasteur famously identified mirror image forms, known as enantiomers, of tartaric acid crystals to show that what had previously been thought of as two chemically identical compounds were not quite identical. One type was the mirror image of the other. And, like a pair of hands, no twisting or turning of the two forms can make them look the same.

The importance of chirality in medicine was further underlined during the thalidomide scandal of the 1950s/60s. Thalidomide is a sedative drug that was prescribed to pregnant women, from 1957 into the early 60's for morning sickness. However, when taken during the first trimester of pregnancy, Thalidomide prevented the proper growth of the fetus, resulting in horrific birth defects. It is now known that Thalidomide is chiral and that while one of the molecules, say the left one, was a sedative, the right one was found to cause fetal abnormalities.

Handy to Know

Professor Reiko Kuroda, a chirality specialist and one of the foremost scientists in her field, is renowned for inventing several pioneering instruments designed to investigate the chirality of molecules. Her inventions have been instrumental in the study of how certain proteins, including those implicated in Alzheimer’s disease, adopt a particular structure.

Professor Kuroda was the first to invent a device for measuring chirality in solid matter at a time when existing instruments could only measure liquids.

Today, she uses these measuring devices to study the dynamic properties by which proteins – such as beta-amyloid protein (implicated in Alzheimer’s disease) and insulin – fold into their chiral forms. Alongside her team, the professor also investigates how molecules, whether biological or nonbiological, recognize and discriminate handedness in their neighbours. Their work has important implications for the study of disease, organismal development and even the origin of life on this planet.

“When, why and how the handedness of the biological world occurred is one of the essential keys to investigating the origin of life on this planet,” she explains. “We are a long way from unravelling the mystery, as nature doesn’t yield her secrets easily, but it is an unbelievable journey of discovery contributing to the significant advancement of science and medicine and ultimately helping to find cause and cure of diseases.”

A Hand in our Future

The study of chirality is also instrumental in the development of nanotechnologies – a manipulation of matter on an atomic, molecular, and supramolecular scale, which may be able to create many new materials and devices with a vast range of applications, such as in medicine, electronics, biomaterials and energy production.

Recent studies into carbon nanotubes, for example, have shown that understanding their chirality is fundamental to their research and development. Single-walled carbon nanotubes are uniquely identified by a pair of chirality indices (n,m), which dictate the physical structures and electronic properties of each species. According to a recent study published in Nature, October 2013, carbon nanotube research is currently facing two outstanding challenges: achieving chirality-controlled growth and understanding chirality-dependent device physics.

Understanding this is important, as carbon nanotubes could be used in the future to replace the transistors in chips that power our data-crunching servers, high performing computers and ultra fast smart phones. They are poised to replace and outperform silicon technology, allowing further miniaturization of computing components and leading the way for future microelectronics.

It’s All in the Handshake

Unlocking the secrets that chirality holds could have unlimited rewards for the future. We have already experienced some of its benefits through the work of eminent scientists such as Louis Pasteur, Reiko Kuroda and others, who have dedicated their life to researching this amazing phenomenon. From technology, to medicine, to curing disease, the study of chirality has incredible impact on life, as we know it.

For Women in Science

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