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Life's chirality from prebiotic environments

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  02 October 2012

Marcelo Gleiser*
Department of Physics and Astronomy, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH 03755, USA
Sara Imari Walker
NASA Astrobiology Institute, USA BEYOND: Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ 85287, USA


A key open question in the study of life is the origin of biomolecular homochirality: almost every life-form on Earth has exclusively levorotary amino acids and dextrorotary sugars. Will the same handedness be preferred if life is found elsewhere? We review some of the pertinent literature and discuss recent results suggesting that life's homochirality resulted from sequential chiral symmetry breaking triggered by environmental events. In one scenario, autocatalytic prebiotic reactions undergo stochastic fluctuations due to environmental disturbances, in a mechanism reminiscent of evolutionary punctuated equilibrium: short-lived destructive events may lead to long-term enantiomeric excess. In another, chiral-selective polymerization reaction rates influenced by environmental effects lead to substantial chiral excess even in the absence of autocatalysis. Applying these arguments to other potentially life-bearing platforms has implications to the search for extraterrestrial life: we predict that a statistically representative sampling of extraterrestrial stereochemistry will be racemic (chirally neutral) on average.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2012

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