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24.7: Chirality in Organic Chemistry

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    Organic compounds, molecules created around a chain of carbon atom (more commonly known as carbon backbone), play an essential role in the chemistry of life. These molecules derive their importance from the energy they carry, mainly in a form of potential energy between atomic molecules. Since such potential force can be widely affected due to changes in atomic placement, it is important to understand the concept of an isomer, a molecule sharing same atomic make up as another but differing in structural arrangement.

    Stereoisomers are isomers that differ in spatial arrangement of atoms, rather than order of atomic connectivity. One of their most interesting type of isomer is the mirror-image stereoisomers, a non-superimposable set of two molecules that are mirror image of one another. The existence of these molecules are determined by concept known as chirality.


    Molecules with the same connectivity but different arrangements of the atoms in space are called stereoisomers. There are two types of stereoisomers: geometric and optical. Geometric isomers differ in the relative position(s) of substituents in a rigid molecule. Simple rotation about a C–C σ bond in an alkene, for example, cannot occur because of the presence of the π bond. The substituents are therefore rigidly locked into a particular spatial arrangement. Thus a carbon–carbon multiple bond, or in some cases a ring, prevents one geometric isomer from being readily converted to the other. The members of an isomeric pair are identified as either cis or trans, and interconversion between the two forms requires breaking and reforming one or more bonds. Because their structural difference causes them to have different physical and chemical properties, cis and trans isomers are actually two distinct chemical compounds.

    Stereoisomers have the same connectivity, but different arrangements of atoms in space.

    Optical isomers are molecules whose structures are mirror images but cannot be superimposed on one another in any orientation. Optical isomers have identical physical properties, although their chemical properties may differ in asymmetric environments. Molecules that are nonsuperimposable mirror images of each other are said to be chiral (pronounced “ky-ral,” from the Greek cheir, meaning “hand”). Examples of some familiar chiral objects are your hands, feet, and ears. As shown in Figure \(\PageIndex{1a}\), your left and right hands are nonsuperimposable mirror images. (Try putting your right shoe on your left foot—it just doesn’t work.) An achiral object is one that can be superimposed on its mirror image, as shown by the superimposed flasks in Figure \(\PageIndex{1b}\).

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Chiral and Achiral Objects. (a) Objects that are nonsuperimposable mirror images of each other are chiral, such as the left and the right hand. (b) The unmarked flask is achiral because it can be superimposed on its mirror image.

    Most chiral organic molecules have at least one carbon atom that is bonded to four different groups, as occurs in the bromochlorofluoromethane molecule shown in part (a) in Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\). This carbon, often designated by an asterisk in structural drawings, is called a chiral center or asymmetric carbon atom. If the bromine atom is replaced by another chlorine (Figure \(\PageIndex{2b}\)), the molecule and its mirror image can now be superimposed by simple rotation. Thus the carbon is no longer a chiral center. Asymmetric carbon atoms are found in many naturally occurring molecules, such as lactic acid, which is present in milk and muscles, and nicotine, a component of tobacco. A molecule and its nonsuperimposable mirror image are called enantiomers (from the Greek enantiou, meaning “opposite”).

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Comparison of Chiral and Achiral Molecules. (a) Bromochlorofluoromethane is a chiral molecule whose stereocenter is designated with an asterisk. Rotation of its mirror image does not generate the original structure. To superimpose the mirror images, bonds must be broken and reformed. (b) In contrast, dichlorofluoromethane and its mirror image can be rotated so they are superimposable.

    In the 1960’s, a drug called thalidomide was widely prescribed in the Western Europe to alleviate morning sickness in pregnant women.


    Thalidomide had previously been used in other countries as an antidepressant, and was believed to be safe and effective for both purposes. The drug was not approved for use in the U.S.A. It was not long, however, before doctors realized that something had gone horribly wrong: many babies born to women who had taken thalidomide during pregnancy suffered from severe birth defects.

    Image of a baby's feet with birth defects. Each of the baby's feet has 7 mishapen toes.
    Baby born to a mother who had taken thalidomide while pregnant.

    Researchers later realized the that problem lay in the fact that thalidomide was being provided as a mixture of two different isomeric forms.


    One of the isomers is an effective medication, the other caused the side effects. Both isomeric forms have the same molecular formula and the same atom-to-atom connectivity, so they are not constitutional isomers. Where they differ is in the arrangement in three-dimensional space about one tetrahedral, sp3-hybridized carbon. These two forms of thalidomide are stereoisomers.

    Looking for planes of symmetry in a molecule is useful, but often difficult in practice. In most cases, the easiest way to decide whether a molecule is chiral or achiral is to look for one or more stereocenters - with a few rare exceptions, the general rule is that molecules with at least one stereocenter are chiral, and molecules with no stereocenters are achiral. Carbon stereocenters are also referred to quite frequently as chiral carbons.

    When evaluating a molecule for chirality, it is important to recognize that the question of whether or not the dashed/solid wedge drawing convention is used is irrelevant. Chiral molecules are sometimes drawn without using wedges (although obviously this means that stereochemical information is being omitted). Conversely, wedges may be used on carbons that are not stereocenters – look, for example, at the drawings of glycine and citrate in the figure above. Just because you see dashed and solid wedges in a structure, do not automatically assume that you are looking at a stereocenter.

    24.7: Chirality in Organic Chemistry is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.