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Michael C. Young
PhD Graduate
Department of Chemistry
University of California, Riverside
Chirality and the Origins of Life: A Case Study in Organic Chemistry

In this case study, students are guided through an example of how the amplification of enantiomeric excess in prebiotic amino acids may have contributed to the occurrence of only L-amino acids in nature. By studying the mechanism of racemization of amino acids and their derivatives and applying the concepts of crystallization and equilibrium, students can critically analyze a recent (2008) article in the Journal of the American Chemical Society on chirality enhancement under conditions that mimic the prebiotic environment. The article provides a possible cause of single enantioforms of amino acids, and the case study extends this to critically investigate whether this is a viable theory for the existence of L amino acids as the sole natural constituents of natural macromolecules. This case study is designed for a first semester/first quarter organic chemistry course, and is generally presented in the middle of the course after the topics of stereochemistry and acid/base reactions are taught.